Canada keeps getting kicked around by ostensible allies. This week, it was Saudi Arabia’s turn. Our Middle East correspondent, Ben Hubbard, writes on the Saudi media’s heightened, if skewed, interest in Canada.
Canada, I’ve been hearing nasty things about you.
Canada has the highest suicide rates in the world.
Canadian prisons are rife with abuse.
Canada gives shelter to terrorists.
I am the bureau chief for The New York Times in Beirut, Lebanon, and among the countries that I write about is Saudi Arabia.
So since the tiff between your government and the kingdom broke out this week over Canada’s calls for the release of arrested Saudi rights activists, I have been watching how the Saudi news media has been talking about you.
It has not been pretty.
“In Canada, women have the highest rates of persecution,” an analyst said on a Saudi television station, without explaining how such statistics are calculated.
Another channel ran a montage about “the worst Canadian prisons,” saying that they had poor food and health services and that justice took so long that 75 percent of prisoners died before their trials between 2015 and 2017.
Another commentator was worried about Indigenous Canadians.
“They are poor, they are killed, they are displaced,” he said. “Canada is a racist country.”
Many of the claims were false or at least misleading, but even those grounded in truth were surprising to hear on Saudi airwaves. Canada is no stranger to international criticism over its treatment of Indigenous people, for example. But it’s unusual to hear those concerns from Saudi Arabia, a country that beheads criminals in public squares and gave women the right to drive only this year, and which almost never mentioned Canada on the news before last week.
What’s going on here?
It is not really about you, but has much more to do with changes taking place inside Saudi Arabia.
[Opinion: Saudi Arabia’s Ugly Spat With Canada]
Since I started visiting the kingdom in 2013, I have gotten to know the place well and count many Saudis among my friends.
It used to be a quieter place, one that liked to stay out of the news and maintain good relations with the West, including Canada. When Western countries did complain, about the status of Saudi women or about the kingdom’s human rights record, it either dealt with the issue quietly or ignored it, assuming, usually correctly, that most countries prioritized trade in oil and arms over human rights.
But things began to change in 2015 when a new monarch, King Salman, rose to the throne and began vesting tremendous power in his son, Mohammed bin Salman.
While these moves have worried people abroad, they have been popular at home. In general, Prince Mohammed is a Saudi nationalist, one who believes that his country is rich, powerful and important and has not been getting the respect it deserves.
If that sounds to you like another current world leader, you would not be the first to make the comparison.
The move against Canada fits with this effort to rewrite the rules.
The Saudis have said what angered them was the call by Canadian diplomats for the immediate release of two Saudis, a human-rights activist named Samar Badawi, and her brother, Raif Badawi, who was publicly caned and jailed in 2015 for running a liberal blog.
Saudi officials called the Canadian criticism an unacceptable interference in the kingdom’s internal affairs and threatened that further Canadian actions would give them license to interfere in Canadian affairs, without making clear what that meant.
Most Saudi news outlets are directly or indirectly run by the government, and it is not a place where people turn to the news media for lively debates about policy. News outlets are instead marshaled to be cheerleaders for whatever it is that the leadership wants to do.
And this week, that was to bash Canada and its claim to stand up for human rights.
Some outlets took it further.
“The Kingdom Is Immune to Conspiracies,” read a headline on Friday in one Saudi newspaper. The article quoted “experts” who said that Canada exploited the issue of human rights to pursue “malicious goals” and provided shelter to terrorists.
The article ran with an image of a man’s legs wearing red socks, black shoes and no pants, with a maple leaf falling between his knees.
“The fig leaf has fallen,” the caption read.
So what can Canada do?
Canadian leaders have made it clear that they are not going to apologize or drop their calls for the activists to be released. There is little reason to believe that Saudi Arabia, which has stopped buying Canadian grain and is pulling thousands of students from Canadian universities, will stand down, either.
Canada may have few other options than to wait for the moment to pass in Saudi Arabia so that the Canadian diplomats who have not been expelled can quietly work on rebuilding relations.
—Friday brought more gun deaths to Canada, including the killing of two police officers. But as Catherine Porter and Matthew Haag report, this time they occurred in a community where homicide is rare: Fredericton.
—Officials are still looking into what caused the death of Rick Genest, a Montreal artist and model whose head-to-toe tattoos caused him to be better known as “Zombie Boy.”
—The owners of a seed farm near Hamilton invited people to come pose for selfies among its sunflowers. It was an invitation they soon regretted.
—Researchers at the University of British Columbia believe that a bristly, swiveling, motorized brush can not only make cows happy, but can also reduce disease and help cut down on cow vandalism of barns.
Around The Times
—In one of its many trade fights with Canada, the Trump administration has lowered some of its tariffs on Canadian newsprint. But that’s unlikely to alleviate its dire effects on some small newspapers.
—Another long, and worthwhile, weekend read from The New York Times Magazine: C.J. Chivers, a writer at large and a former Marine, has repeatedly looked into the recent American military campaigns and the soldiers who have fought them. His finding is bleak: “On one matter there can be no argument: The policies that sent these men and women abroad, with their emphasis on military action and their visions of reordering nations and cultures, have not succeeded. It is beyond honest dispute that the wars did not achieve what their organizers promised, no matter the party in power or the generals in command.”