Saudi Arabia, Canada row: All over a tweet

salman-trudeau Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

A tweet by Canada's Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland has resulted in the souring of relationship between Canada and Saudi Arabia. The international bond has withered so much that Saudi Arabia froze new trade and investment with Canada, expelled the Canadian ambassador from the country, recalled its ambassador from Canada and suspended the state airliner's direct flights to Toronto. The kingdom will suspend educational exchange programmes with Canada and move Saudi scholarship recipients to other countries, Saudi-owned Al Arabiya reported.

All this over a tweet! Last Thursday, Canada's Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland wrote on Twitter on Thursday that she was "very alarmed" to learn that Saudi-American human rights campaigner Samar Badawi, sister of jailed blogger Raif Badawi, had been detained. Human rights groups had reported that Badawi was detained last week. She had received the US International Women of Courage Award in 2012 and is known for challenging Saudi Arabia's male guardianship system. Her brother Raif was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for "insulting Islam" online back in 2014, while his wife, Ensaf Haidar, lives in Canada and recently became a Canadian citizen.

The next day, the Canadian foreign ministry called for the release of the activist's immediate release.  

The Saudi foreign ministry was surprised by the statement. In a series of tweets the ministry slammed Canada's statement and called it "entirely false and utterly incorrect". The ministry then went on to say Canada that their "position is an overt and blatant interference in the internal affairs of the Kingdom of #SaudiArabia".

"KSA through its history has not and will not accept any form of interfering in the internal affairs of the Kingdom. The KSA considers the Canadian position an attack on the KSA and requires a firm stance to deter who attempts to undermine the sovereignty of the KSA," the Twitter post of the Saudi foreign ministry said.

The Saudi foreign ministry went on to warn Canada that "Any other attempt to interfere with our internal affairs from #Canada, means that we are allowed to interfere in #Canada's internal affairs."

Then it went on to recall its ambassador to Canada and expel Canadian ambassador.

But the situation took a turn for the worse when a Twitter account, reportedly linked to Saudi authorities, shared an image of a plane flying towards Toronto's famed CN Tower. Text overlaying the image read, "he who interferes with what doesn't concern him finds what doesn't please him."

Social media was quick to point out the similarities between the image and 9/11 attack. Though the account was deleted, cached versions of the tweet are circulating online.  

Canada has responded by saying it "will continue to advocate for human rights".

Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said she was "deeply concerned" by the diplomat's expulsion, but added: "Canada will always stand up for the protection of human rights, including women's rights and freedom of expression around the world.

"We will never hesitate to promote these values and we believe that this dialogue is critical to international diplomacy."

It is yet to be seen whether the new trade ban will affect existing annual Saudi-Canadian trade of nearly $4 billion and a $13 billion defense contract.

Though Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been trying to bring in reforms in the country, the monarchy refuses to liberalise the politcal system and shuts down public dissent. Economic and social reforms might be on the way, but the kingdom's response is a clear indication of the tight ship they run and the limit of Salman's reform efforts.