The Blowup With Canada Is the Latest Saudi Overreach. Will They Ever Pay a Price?

Saudi Arabia's brash crown prince is doing more damage to its reputation than its enemies could ever imagine.

French President Emmanuel Macron receives Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France on April 10, 2018. (Sipa via AP Images)

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Élysée Palace in Paris, on April 10, 2018.

Photo: Abd Rabbo Ammar, Pool/SIPA via AP

Have the Saudis gone stark-raving bonkers?

First, they pick a fight with Canada — yeah, that Canada! Maple syrup-loving, hockey-playing, poutine-eating, liberal, multicultural Canada; the land with free health care and a prime minister who wears “Eid Mubarak” socks.

On Sunday, Saudi Arabia (over)reacted to a single tweet from the Canadian foreign ministry. The tweet called on the Saudis to “immediately release” imprisoned activist Samar Badawi, sister of Raif, as well as “all other peaceful #humanrights activists.” The Saudi foreign ministry lambasted the Canadians for an “unfortunate, reprehensible, and unacceptable” statement, announced the “freezing of all new trade and investment transactions” with Canada, demanding the Canadian ambassador leave the country “within the next 24 hours.”

At the same time, Saudi trolls took to Twitter to declare their loud support for … Quebec’s independence. Who knew that an absolute Persian Gulf monarchy was so passionate about a French-speaking secessionist movement 6,000 miles away? (Hey, Canadian trolls — if you even exist — my advice would be to retaliate by offering Ottawa’s backing for independence in the restless, Shia-dominated Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. It’ll drive them totally nuts.)

Saudi Arabia was just getting started.

And Saudi Arabia was just getting started. On Monday, the kingdom escalated the row by suspending scholarships “for about 16,000 Saudi students” studying in Canada, the Toronto Star reported, “and ordered them to attend schools elsewhere.” (Can you think of a better example of biting your bigoted nose to spite your intolerant face?)

Then — and this is my favorite part of this whole bizarre episode — a Saudi group put out an image on Twitter of a Canadian airliner flying directly toward Toronto’s tallest building over a warning against interfering in others’ affairs. (The Saudi group later deleted it and apologized)

Are. You. Kidding. Me?

Much has been made of the kingdom’s “increasingly assertive foreign policy” but, yet again, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known by his initials MBS, may have bitten off more than he can chew. It’s madness to try and bully a Western government, which up until Sunday was both a friend of Saudi Arabia and a major arms supplier, for offering the mildest of online criticisms of (undeniable) human rights abuses. What message does that send to Riyadh’s other Western allies, who also like to go through the motions of lightly condemning various Saudi abuses in order to appease their voters? Is the game up?

As I observed back in November, MBS is the reverse Midas — everything he touches turns to dust. Why, for example, make so much noise and demonstrate such (faux) outrage over Canada’s “overt and blatant interference in the internal affairs” of the Saudi kingdom, thereby drawing attention to the country’s own “overt and blatant interference” in Syria, Bahrain, Lebanon, Iraq, Libya, Egypt and, of course, Yemen? The double standards are stark.

They could have just ignored Canada’s passing, pro forma admonishment of their crackdown on women’s rights activists and the rest. They’ve done it before. But the Saudis, led by their impulsive and thin-skinned crown prince, have proven themselves to be their own worst enemies. Their Iranian, Qatari, and Turkish rivals couldn’t pay for the kind of negative, anti-Saudi media coverage that the folks in Riyadh seem to produce all by themselves.

Take Yemen. This summer, The Intercept reported on a Saudi airstrike that hit a wedding in the remote mountain village of Al-Raqah, killing 23 civilians, including children, and injuring dozens. In a follow-up, the Washington Post cited U.N. figures showing that “more than three years into Yemen’s civil war, more than 16,000 civilians have been killed and injured, the vast majority by airstrikes.” The Post noted that the Saudi-led coalition “is the only actor in the conflict that uses warplanes, mostly U.S.- and British-made fighter jets. The airstrikes have struck hospitals, schools, markets, motels, migrant boats, gas stations, even funeral gatherings, raising questions about the coalition’s ability to abide by humanitarian laws that call for civilians to be safeguarded.”

“Raising questions” is an understatement. The ongoing Saudi-led blockade and bombardment of Yemen has led to politicians, pundits, and activists across the West accusing the Saudi military of “crimes against humanity” and calling MBS a “war criminal.”

Then there is the whole terrorism issue. This week, as the Saudis escalated their diplomatic spat with the Canadians, the Associated Press reported that the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen has “cut secret deals with al-Qaida fighters, paying some to leave key cities and towns and letting others retreat with weapons, equipment and wads of looted cash,” while “hundreds more were recruited to join the coalition itself.”

According to AP, “these compromises and alliances have allowed al-Qaida militants to survive to fight another day — and risk strengthening the most dangerous branch of the terror network that carried out the 9/11 attacks.”

While we’re on the subject of Al Qaeda, how many of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Canadians?

So what’s the response from President Donald Trump’s team to all this? A State Department official told HuffPost on Monday that the administration would not be taking sides in the spat because “Canada and Saudi Arabia are both close allies of the United States.”

Sorry, what? “Both close allies”? Is Canada working with Al Qaeda in Yemen? Cutting deals with, and recruiting fighters from, the group behind the attack on the Twin Towers? And, while we’re on the subject of Al Qaeda, how many of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Canadians?

To quote Sen. Bernie Sanders, when he sat down to talk foreign policy with me last September, “Do I consider [the Saudis] an ally? I consider them to be an undemocratic country that has supported terrorism around the world, it has funded terrorism, so I can’t. … No, they are not an ally of the United States.”

Perhaps a bruised Canadian government will now take a similar stance to the independent senator from Vermont. The majority of Canadians, like the majority of Americans and Brits, aren’t fans of their government’s close ties with, and constant sales of arms to, the Saudi dictatorship. Being bullied by MBS and company might make them even more hostile to the Middle East kingdom — and maybe make their elected governments sit up and take more notice of their voters, and less notice of Riyadh. If that happens — fingers crossed! — then Monday’s ridiculous and offensive Twitter image will be the least of the Saudis’ concerns.

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