Sunday, August 12, 2018

The Saudi-Canadian Diplomatic Dust-up

You might or might not have been following the diplomatic dust-up between Canadian prime minister Justin Bieber and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

As you know, under the leadership of MBS, Saudi Arabia has been liberalizing. It recently allowed women to drive automobiles. The moves have provoked a  mild reaction, but most Saudis seem to be on board with the MBS reform movement.

At the same time, the Saudis do not want human rights agitators to be involved in the process. Presumably this means that they do not want outside forces to be pushing them toward Western over-liberalization. The reason might be that they do not want to provoke a counterreaction.

Some people are having difficulty dealing with the fact that, on the one hand, Saudi Arabia is liberalizing but on the other hand it rejects the influence of human rights activists. One suspects that if MBS appears to be caving to feminist demands, his rule would be shortened.

Recently, after the kingdom detained some notable feminist human rights activists, the foreign minister of Canada, Chrystia Freeland chose to lecture MBS on feminist principles and human rights.

Evidently, the Saudis did not like being subjected to interference by Prime Minister Justin Bieber’s minister… so it asserted itself strongly. One understands that the new Canada has been a beacon of weakness in the world. Looking as though you march to the Canadian drum would be bad for the health of MBS.

In foreign policy terms, the issue dramatizes the difference between idealistic diplomacy and balance of powers Realpolitik diplomacy. Bleeding heart Andrew Sullivan finds it all to be as clear as mud. He sees the issue as human rights and human wrongs. Since the weak-kneed Canadian prime minister is on the side of human rights, the Trump administration should excoriate the Saudis for not being nice to Canada. If Trump fails to do so he has given up the moral high ground. Sullivan is notoriously fond of the moral high ground. And yet, occupying the moral high ground merely makes you a target.

Sullivan tells the story:

On May 19, “the Saudi Arabian authorities and government-aligned media launched a public smear campaign to try to discredit six prominent detained women’s rights defenders as ‘traitors’ following their arrest. Official statements in state media accused six activists and one other individual of forming a ‘cell,’ posing a threat to state security for their ‘contact with foreign entities with the aim of undermining the country’s stability and social fabric’.”

Of course, Sullivan does not ask whether these activists would undermine the country’s stability and social fabric. He does not care, so he does not raise the issue. People who run countries do not have the same luxury.

Sullivan continues:

This campaign was completed last week with the detention of the last two prominent women’s rights activists, Nassima al-Sada and Samar Badawi. Badawi is the sister of a Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, who set up an open forum website and was therefore lashed a thousand times in public and is currently serving a prison term of ten years. Both women have been persecuted for years. Amnesty International notes that “in 2014, [Badawi] was subjected to a travel ban and was also arrested in 2016for her human rights work … Al-Sada has campaigned for civil and political rights, women’s rights and the rights of the Shi’a minority in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia for many years.

One suspects that people campaigning for Shia rights in notably Sunni Saudi Arabia, a nation that is being threatened by Shia Iran… would not be very well received. Just a guess....

Anyway, Canada’s foreign minister chose to get involved in the dispute… thus in the internal affairs of Saudi Arabia:

In response to the latest crackdown, the Canadian government tweeted its concern: “Canada is gravely concerned about additional arrests of civil society and women’s rights advocates in #SaudiArabia, including Samar Badawi. We urge the Saudi authorities to immediately release them and all other peaceful human rights activists.” Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s foreign affairs minister, spoke out in part because Raif Badawi’s wife and three kids now live in Canada, and have been citizens since July.

The Saudi Crown prince took the occasion to affirm his alliance with strong Western nations. He rejected Canadian whining and struck back forcefully. Sullivan says it was a hissy fit… but, who are we to judge? And who are we to interfere with internal Saudi politics.

Sullivan explains:

In response, MBS has thrown a hissy fit of Trumpian proportions. The Canadian ambassador was given 24 hours to leave; 15,000 Saudi students in Canada were recalled home; trade with Canada was suspended; an order to sell all Saudi central bank and state pension fund shares in Canadian interests was proclaimed, according to the Financial Times. Saudi subjects receiving medical treatment in Canada are being transferred out of care, and about 800 Saudi medical residents and fellows in Canada have been ordered home. Saudi television channels have been gushing with anti-Canadian invective, and a Saudi propaganda channel tweeted a picture of a large plane heading into the center of Toronto, with the words: “Sticking One’s Nose Where It Doesn’t Belong!” attached to this threat: “As the Arab saying goes: he who interferes with what doesn’t concern him finds what doesn’t please him.” The pièce de résistance of the counterattack was a Saudi assertion that Jordan Peterson is a political prisoner. How’s that for peak 2018?

Saudi Arabia wants to be a player on the world stage. You cannot be a player if you allow people to believe that you can be pushed around by Justin Bieber and Chrystia Freeland.

And, to cap off the horror, Saudi Arabia crucified a criminal in the public square. We have long since overcome our tendency toward public executions, but we do note that China, the nation that is more the role model for Saudi Arabia than Western liberal democracies, recently executed drug dealers in a public stadium. Of course, Canada remains on good terms with China.

To his credit, Sullivan can see through the miasma of his moral outrage to the reasons for the Trump administration’s failure to take Canada’s side:

Trump, of course, is not the only U.S. president to suck up to the theocratic tyrants in Riyadh. Every previous president has done so, for obvious realpolitik reasons (oil, and the defense of Israel). But the Saudi connection is tighter now. Despite no official relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, MBS and Netanyahu are now joined at the hip with Trump because they all want a war against Iran (and are having considerable success laying the groundwork). The Saudis are also useful to the Israelis as a way to delegitimize any genuine form of Palestinian self-determination — because the Saudis have been prepared to throw their Arab neighbors under the bus in order to fight a regime in Tehran that MBS has said “makes Hitler look good.” Trump’s hatred of Iran and Kushner’s hopes for Israel’s expansion keep this unholy trinity together. The idea that either Trump or his mute dauphin give a hoot about human rights is preposterous. The more brutal a regime’s human rights abuses are, the more likely it is that Trump admires it.

To clarify, Obama did not suck up to the Saudis. He helped overthrow their friend Hosni Mubarak, handed Egypt to the Muslim Brotherhood and empowered Iran… by funding their terrorism and giving them a path to nuclear weapons. As expected, Sullivan ignores these salient points, showing himself to be an Obama apologist.

As for creating a Middle Eastern alliance to undo the damage the Obama has wrought on the region, one understands well the advantages of such work. And one has often alluded to it on this blog.

Sullivan would throw it away in order to make an empty diplomatic gesture. Nothing quite like self-righteous moral posturing to ruin the party.

To offer some further perspective, we add the remarks of J. J. McCullough from the Washington Post. McCullough is obviously a more conservative voice. He notes that Canada’s prime minister has happily embraced Fidel Castro and has tried to cozy up to the mullahs in Iran. We recall Trudeau’s family  trip to India where he made a complete fool of himself in the world stage.

McCullough puts it into context:

A Canadian prime minister whose ability to identify friends and enemies is out of sync with the moment of history he inhabits. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy whose detention of activists is antithetical to Canadian democracy. But this can just as easily be said of Cuba and China, whose regimes Trudeau has showered with cartoonish affection. The distinction is that, while the ruler of Saudi Arabia is a young reformist exerting targeted effort to scale back some of his government’s hideousness, including Wahhabi fundamentalism, Trudeau happily seeks opportunities in dictatorships far less self-conscious.

The thing is: Canada does not much count in foreign affairs these days. Standing up for principle, for some lofty ideals, in a world where Realpolitik is the only game in town… makes it seem increasingly irrelevant.

McCullough concludes:

A country like Canada cannot affect much of consequence on the international stage. But if the goal is future relevance, the Trudeau administration should, at least, possess awareness of where its incompetence is best directed.


Leo G said...

Ah, but don't worry, we will still buy oil from Saud, while letting protesters keep our oil land locked and our economy losing billions.

I do love my country, but feel so frustrated at times with the amount of grown up children that reside here.


sestamibi said...

Unfortunately, the US is faced with a binary choice: either men rule or feminists rule, we become either Sweden or Saudi Arabia. There is no middle ground, and that being the case, I prefer Saudi Arabia.

Sam L. said...

Prime Minister Bieber and ace syncophant Sullivan are quite the pair...of deuces. Call their "bluff" (such as it is, which is ignorable).