Less than two weeks ago, a female Saudi Arabian activist was arrested for her political activities promoting women’s rights in Saudi. This event might have gone unnoticed. It became headline news when Canada’s Foreign Affairs minister Chrystia Freedland decided to handle her diplomacy on Twitter rather than through conventional diplomatic channels. One must presume that Ms. Freedland had the support of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to act so recklessly. Ms. Freedland demanding that Samar Badawi and her friend be released for the arrest resulting from agitating political activities in Saudi- was perceived as a tremendous slap in the Saudi face and the new young Saudi Prince Mohammed Bin Salman would have none of it. He decided to make Canada pay a high price. As Canada refused to apologize for the Twitter statement, the Canadian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia was sent home, the Saudi Ambassador to Canada was brought home, thousands of Saudi scholarships for students intending to attend Canadian colleges were rescinded, Saudis in Canadian hospitals were removed from that country, and trade with Canada was frozen in many areas including barley and wheat. Most serious of all was the announcement of a total divestment of all Canadian Assets by the Saudi central bank. When the Saudis get angry… they make sure you will not make the same mistake again.
The issue under discussion, is not whether women need better treatment in Arab states. That, according to Western values – is a given. Saudi Arabia recently allowed women to drive, but that is just a tiny improvement in their status. Arab women in most Muslim countries live as second-class citizens…at best. At issue is whether a) Twitter is the place to conduct international affairs and b) whether Nation States (Canada in particular) are the least bit aware of the sensitivities of different cultures, religions and societies.
The fact that President Trump uses Twitter to send of messages daily, frankly appalls me… but he gets away with it as he seems to limit his insults to his US opponents (who can deal with it) and often (although not always) – uses it to flatter his international friends. Twitter is indeed a low level of communication for someone as important as a Prime Minister, President, or Minister of Foreign Affairs. It reflects little concern for the consequences of the moment. We have the proof in the violent adverse reaction of the Saudis towards Canada.
The case of Samar Badawi is complicated by the fact that her brother Raif Badawi is in a Saudi prison for his own version of social protesting. His blogs and political activities have angered authorities who have been watching this family for a very long time. Samar has taken on the Saudi establishment from within and while international women’s groups laud her efforts for change, she has become an enemy inside the borders of her own country.
There is a definite link between the Badawi family and the Canadian government. Raif Badawi’s wife lives in Canada and has likely appealed to the Canadian government to come to the aid of her husband and sister-in-law, both imprisoned for their political activities in Saudi Arabia. Insensitivity to International protocol has turned Freedland’s “tweet” into a major storm which will now impact thousands of Canadian lives.
When the U.S. State Department under the leadership of Hillary Clinton in conjunction with Michelle Obama decided to honor Ms. Badawi in 2012 with their “Woman of Courage Award” they helped her to draw attention to the plight of the women in Fundamentalist Muslim nations. Had that award been granted today, the relationship between the US and the Saudis might indeed be very different. Some are asking whether the influence of Mrs. Clinton and Mrs. Obama has had an impact on the actions of Ms. Freedland.
Whilst most westerners will think that the Saudis have overreacted to a “simple tweet” of no consequence, they need to take a step back to reassess. Saudi Arabia is one of the few Arab states to have survived the “Arab Spring” and the Obama-Clinton inspired dissolution of multiple Arab nations which left them in chaos. The misdirected vision that the civil unrest in the Arab Spring would lead to Democracy is mirrored in the similar naïve comments offered to no avail by Ms. Freedland. The Saudis are not going to allow any young protesters to mobilize their citizens to overthrow their legal system or their religious order. Did Ms. Freedland not give that even a moment’s thought before sending her Tweet? If not…why not?
Whilst young leaders like Prime Minister Trudeau are winning elections in many countries, they have an obligation to take International relations with nations unlike their own – more seriously. The damage Canada will absorb from this one comment, may cost Mr. Trudeau his next election. If he has created a political climate amongst his appointees and staffers that is irreverent and immature, he will deserve the penalty. His fellow citizens are being punished from his administration’s naïve and ignorant approach to world affairs.
Little surprise that this incident has left Canada totally isolated. None of the democratic nations are coming to her defense. Foolishness has its price. It really is time for elected leaders to “grow up.” We live in a very complicated world where different cultures have different priorities than our own. We may be “right” that our values are better…but that is not the issue. We must also be respectful of what formalities are involved in sharing our message with those of opposing views. Behind the scenes negotiations have more chance of success than hysterical social media postings. Ignored by Ms. Freedland is an understanding of the Arab sense of “honor.” Embarrassing Saudi Arabia with a tweet for all to view, and then refusing to rescind it, was quite simply a public insult which the Saudi’s were unprepared to ignore. In politics it is about “what works,” not about appeasing your personal sense of morality and your home base. That should be the difference between those who hold public office- and you or me. Our “tweets” represent only our own opinions and have limited ramifications. Government officials need to consider the consequences of what they do. We now live in an era where that has become unfashionable, but the repercussions remain severe in cases of irresponsibility. The Saudis have now proven this to Canada.
When will the newest crop of politicians grow up and realize that Twitter, Facebook and the like – may help them get elected… but are sites for local conversation, not for impacting on International relations?
Canada’s electorate will determine how much damage they have suffered from this incident. Their voters will reflect their conclusion at the next Canadian national election.