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Monday, August 13, 2018

UK should get off the fence and back Trudeau in dispute with Saudis

By far the most shocking international story of last week was not the revelation that Donald Trump had initially asked to be sworn in over a copy of 'The Art of the Deal' rather than the Bible, or even the allegation that he frequently uses the 'N-word', but the way that Canada has been left isolated by Western democracies over their criticism of civil rights abuses in Saudi Arabia.

As this website outlines, Saudi Arabia are angry at the Canadian Government for openly denouncing a crackdown on rights activists in their country. Human Rights Watch has the details:

On June 6, Saudi authorities arrested the writer and activist Nouf Abdelaziz, who had publicly expressed solidarity with three women’s rights activists arrested in May, along with at least 14 other activists and supporters. On June 10, the authorities arrested Mayaa al-Zahrani, an activist and friend of Abdelaziz, after she reportedly posted a letter Abdelaziz asked her to make public in case of her arrest. In the letter, addressed to her fellow Saudis, Abdelaziz explained who she was, stressing that she committed no crime: “I am not a provoker, not a vandalizer, not a terrorist, a criminal or a traitor… I have never been [anything] but a good citizen who loves her country and wishes for it nothing but the best.” Both women are being held incommunicado.

“The Saudi government appears determined to leave its citizens without any space to show even rhetorical support for activists jailed in this unforgiving crackdown on dissent,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Nouf Abdelaziz and Mayaa al-Zahrani’s only ‘crime’ seems to be expressing solidarity with their fellow imprisoned activists.”

On June 4, the local newspaper Okaz reported that nine detained activists, four women and five men, will soon be referred to the Specialized Criminal Court, which was originally established to try detainees held in connection with terrorism offenses, to be tried for committing three “serious” crimes: “cooperating with entities hostile to the kingdom,” “recruiting persons in a sensitive government agency to obtain confidential information to harm the interests of the kingdom,” and “providing financial and moral support to hostile elements abroad.”

Okaz earlier reported that, 15 days into the activists’ detention, an investigating body had announced that all nine detainees had confessed to the latter two accusations. If convicted, they could face up to 20 years in prison.

And yet when the Canadian Government criticised these arrests not one major Western nation came forward in their support, whilst two of Ottawa’s closest allies, the USA and the UK, called for restraint.

The West has sat back whilst Riyadh expelled Canada’s ambassador, recalled its own envoy and froze all new trade and investments. Riyadh also said it will relocate thousands of Saudi students studying in Canada to other countries, while state airline Saudia announced it was suspending flights to Toronto.

Justin Trudeau is standing firm, saying: "Canada will always speak strongly and clearly in private and in public on questions of human rights." But why are the Western nations, so-called defenders of democracy and liberty so silent on this issue?

Like so many things in politics, it all boils down to the money, said one expert.

“There is an attempt by the Saudis to create some fear and rattle some of those Western governments into not supporting Canada because they may be cut out or shut out from some potential Saudi economic deals and the big boom that it’s undertaking,” said Bessma Momani, a professor at the University of Waterloo specializing in Saudi relations told Global News.

“Saudi Arabia is the largest weapons purchaser in the world, so any company or country in the world that sells arms, as does Canada, is likely to be looking into how this is going to affect bilateral trade ties.”

In its statement to reporters, the UK Foreign Office offered just three lines that urged restraint and described both Canada and Saudi Arabia as “close partners.”

The US has also refused to get involved and called both countries close allies.

“Both sides need to diplomatically resolve this together. We can’t do it for them; they need to resolve it together,” US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Tuesday.

The European Union also preferred to not get involved in this high profile issue. “We don’t comment on bilateral relations” and that “we are in favor of a dialogue,” said EU spokesperson.

The position of the UK Government and the EU in particular on this issue is a disgrace. The West has long offered succour to the Saudis, despite their near-medieval treatment of women and the restrictions they impose on their citizens. That is one of the reasons why they have got away with it for so long.

Surely it is now time to get off the fence and back the principled stand being taken by the Canadian government.
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