Saudi Arabia said it has expelled Canada’s ambassador in the kingdom and recalled its own envoy from the North American country after the government in Ottawa expressed concern over recent arrests of civil-society and women’s rights activists in the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry early Monday said the kingdom was also freezing all new business and investment transactions with Canada while retaining its right to take further action.
“The Ministry also affirmed that the Canadian position is an explicit and transparent interference in the internal affairs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” the ministry said.
Saudi Arabia said it considers the Canadian ambassador in Saudi Arabia as persona non grata and gave him a 24-hour notice to leave the kingdom.
A spokeswoman for Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said late Sunday Ottawa was “seriously concerned” about reported developments and was seeking clarity from Saudi officials. The spokeswoman said Canada “will always stand up for the protection of human rights, very much including women’s rights, and freedom of expression around the world,” adding dialogue on such matters is “critical to international diplomacy.”
Last week, authorities in Saudi Arabia detained two women’s rights activists, broadening a campaign of arrests that has drawn international criticism and tainted the kingdom’s top-down agenda of change.
Those rounded up in recent days include Samar Badawi, who is known for having challenged the kingdom’s male guardianship rules and is the sister of one of Saudi Arabia’s most prominent detainees, liberal blogger Raif Badawi. Ms. Badawi is one of at least 18 civil-rights activists arrested since May, four of whom have been temporarily released, activists say. Many others are banned from traveling outside the kingdom. None of them is known to have been formally charged.
The Saudi move on Monday came after the Canadian embassy in Riyadh said Canada was “gravely concerned” over a new wave of arrests of human-rights campaigners in the kingdom, including Ms. Badawi.
“We urge the Saudi authorities to immediately release them and all other peaceful #humanrights activists,” the embassy tweeted on Friday.
The Saudi foreign ministry said the arrests had been carried out by the competent authority under Saudi law.
“It is very unfortunate that the term “immediate release” was mentioned in the statement, which is totally unacceptable in inter-state relations,” the Saudi foreign ministry said.
Under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who runs Saudi Arabia day to day, the government has worked to open up a religiously conservative traditional society with steps such as allowing women to drive and opening cinemas, while at the same time jailing critics, including clerics and rights activists.
But the arrests, critics say, send the message that the monarchy alone will decide the pace and scale of social change in the kingdom.
Hundreds of prominent Saudis, including billionaire Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, were also arrested in November and detained at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh. Most were released after agreeing to make payments Saudi officials say totaled more than $100 billion.
In November last year the kingdom summoned its ambassador in Germany home for consultations over comments by German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel about the political crisis in Lebanon. It also handed Germany’s representative in Riyadh a protest note over what it said were “shameful” comments Mr. Gabriel made after a meeting with his Lebanese counterpart.
“This latest move, and what happened with Germany and the Ritz is going to make investors really wary about doing business in Saudi Arabia,” said a Western adviser to the Saudi government.
“The government says they want to revive investments yet they are ticking all the wrong boxes,” said the adviser.
Saudi Arabia’s intention to freeze trade with Canada isn’t expected to cause major economic disruption.
Canada’s trade with Saudi Arabia is relatively small, with exports to the kingdom topping just over 1 billion Canadian dollars (roughly $770 million) in 2017, according to the country’s data-gathering agency.
What trade Canada does have with Saudi Arabia has drawn some criticism.
In recent years the Canadian government has found itself under scrutiny from human-rights’ groups after it approved the sale of light-armored vehicles made in Canada to Saudi Arabia. Nongovernmental organizations have pressed that Canada open a probe on whether Canadian-made vehicles have been used to commit human-rights abuses.
The sudden diplomatic rupture with Canada illustrates how the kingdom, which has long had severe restrictions on free expression, is becoming even less tolerant to criticism and dissenting views. The Gulf state has previously handed protest notes to foreign governments over remarks on the internal affairs of the kingdom, but it rarely expels diplomats.
The Saudi crown prince has been criticized by some observers and Western diplomats for creating a less stable kingdom. Saudi Arabia last year abruptly cut diplomatic and trade ties with its neighbor Qatar after accusing its former ally of supporting extremism, a charge that Doha denies. Saudi Arabia also was criticized for the sudden resignation of Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, when he was in the kingdom. Mr. Hariri reversed that decision soon after he left Saudi Arabia.