Middle East Ticker

Saudi Arabia Responds to Human Rights Criticism by Expelling Canadian Ambassador

By J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, August 7, 2018, 10:00 AM

Saudi Arabia Expels Canadian Ambassador After Accusing Her of Interfering in Saudi Politics

Saudi Arabia picked a fight this week with Canada in response to the Canadian ambassador’s criticism of the kingdom’s imprisonment of activists and political dissidents. The fight appears to have been prompted by an Aug. 2 tweet from Canada’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, regarding the imprisonment of Samar Badawi, a women’s rights activist and the sister of blogger Raif Badawi, whose arrest and sentencing to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes has garnered international attention from human rights groups. “Very alarmed to learn that Samar Badawi, Raif Badawi’s sister, has been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia. Canada stands together with the Badawi family in this difficult time, and we continue to strongly call for the release of both Raif and Samar Badawi,” Freeland tweeted. A second tweet from an official Canadian government account criticized the arrests of women activists the next day.

Samar Badawi’s arrest is part of the Saudi government’s ongoing crackdown on political dissent, which has clashed with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s efforts to promote himself as a social reformer. Nassima al-Sadah, who has advocated abolishing the country’s guardianship laws, was also arrested last week, and another woman was arrested for dancing in public and wearing immodest clothes for making a “Kiki Challenge” video, a viral phenomenon in which people dance outside of a moving vehicle to the Drake song “In My Feelings.” The recent detentions of women follow a wave of arrests in May that targeted women’s rights activists in the run-up to Saudi Arabia's legalization of female drivers.

The Saudi reaction to the tweets has been wildly disproportionate. On Sunday, the Saudi government announced that it was expelling the Canadian ambassador in Riyadh, halting all trade between the two countries, and recalling all Saudi students studying at Canadian schools. In a statement released via the Saudi Press Agency, Saudi officials called the Canadian tweets “blatant interference in the Kingdom’s domestic affairs, against basic international norms and all international protocols,” and threatened that “any further step from the Canadian side in that direction will be considered as acknowledgment of our right to interfere in the Canadian domestic affairs.” As for what Saudi interference in Canadian politics might look like, Saudi accounts on Twitter appear to be launching a coordinated campaign supporting Quebecois independence and criticizing Canada’s treatment of the country’s indigenous population.

Though the tweets last week reached a tipping point for the Saudis, tensions have been building quietly between Canada and Saudi Arabia for the past couple years. As Thomas Juneau, a professor at University of Ottawa, explained on Twitter, Saudi officials have been frustrated by the way a $15 billion sale of Canadian light armored vehicles to Saudi Arabia has become a political football in the Canadian parliament and an obstacle to diplomatic relations. Another Canadian professor, Amir Attaran, suggested the Saudi decision could also be a retaliation for Canada declining to endorse renewed sanctions on Iran at the Group of 7 summit in June. Additionally, Canada is deeply connected to the Badawi case: Raif Badawi’s wife, Ensaf Haidar, and children now live in Canada, and Haidar recently received Canadian citizenship. Juneau said that on a recent trip to Saudi Arabia, Saudi officials were particularly “resentful” of “being lectured by Westerners on human rights.” He and other experts have suggested that Saudi Arabia’s extreme response is designed to send a message to other Western countries critical of the Kingdom’s human rights record. As Bessma Momani, professor at the University of Waterloo, wrote Monday, “The Saudi Crown Prince wants to signal to the world that interference in Saudi domestic affairs and criticism of the country will come with economic consequences.”

The Trump administration has decided to not take sides in the spat. A statement from the State Department on Monday referred reporters to Canadian and Saudi officials for comment, noting that “Canada and Saudi Arabia are both close allies of the United States.” A State Department official also noted, though, that the U.S. government had requested additional details from Saudi Arabia about the recent arrests.

 

Trump Administration Reinstates Sanctions on Iran

After months of threats and preparations, the United States reinstated sanctions on Iran on Monday that had previously been lifted under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. As the Washington Post reports, the measures will prevent Iran from conducting trade in U.S. dollars and impede Iran’s ability to export oil; other sanctions will constrain Iran’s ability to trade in precious metals and domestically manufactured cars. Additional sanctions on Iran’s oil exports are scheduled to take effect Nov. 4, and U.S. officials have warned countries that import oil from Iran to find new sources for their energy needs. On Monday, President Trump threatened countries that continue to trade with Iran with “severe consequences.” 

Iran is bracing for a fresh blow to its economy, which has been declining for months. The value of the rial has plummeted and the Iranian government has authorized protectionist policies to protect domestic industries. President Hassan Rouhani has called for a return to the austere “resistance economy,” policies last in place when Iran was facing international sanctions before negotiations began over the nuclear agreement, and the Iranian central bank is even dabbling in cryptocurrencies as a potential means of skirting constraints on the use of U.S. dollars for trade and financial transactions. 

Although Iran’s economy could take a significant hit under the new sanctions, they are far less potent than the sanctions that brought Iran to the negotiating table. Those sanctions had buy-in from all of Iran’s major export markets, including the largest importer of Iranian oil, China. But Chinese officials made clear last week that they would not participate in U.S. sanctions this time around, promising only that they would not increase their purchases of Iranian oil. European officials will also not join the renewed U.S. sanctions regime. Instead, they have banded together in an effort to preserve the JCPOA and block the enforcement of U.S. secondary sanctions targeting European companies.

In remarks on Monday, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tried to spin the reimposition of U.S. sanctions as emblematic of a U.S. foreign policy out of step with the international community. “Today, the entire world has declared they are not in line with U.S. policies against Iran," Zarif said, according to Iranian state media. "Talk to anyone, anywhere in the world and they will tell you that Netanyahu, Trump, and bin Salman are isolated, not Iran.” Zarif isn’t wrong that the Trump administration has been unable to build a large coalition to pressure Iran, but it is doubtful that Zarif’s critics will find that satisfactory. The Rouhani government is under fire from its political rivals, who hope to take advantage of the crisis for their own political benefit. Hard-liners in parliament have summoned Rouhani to testify on the country’s economic state within the next month.

Though an administration official reiterated this week that U.S. policy “has not been regime change, it's been to modify the Iranian regime's behavior,” the demands laid out by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are unlikely to be met without a new Iranian government. However, it is Iran’s militant hard-liners who stand to gain most from the Trump administration’s policies. That makes the prospect of direct talks remote, even with the Trump administration’s confusing diplomatic overtures.

 

Saudi and Emirati Coalition Paying Off al-Qaeda in Yemen War, AP Investigation Finds

The Saudi and Emirati coalition fighting in Yemen has paid off militants from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to ensure their peaceful retreat from towns the terrorist group was occupying, according to an investigation by the Associated Press. In many cases, AQAP fighters were not only bribed–including a payment of $26,000 to just one AQAP commander–but allowed safe passage to leave populated areas, taking with them their weapons and spoils stolen from the areas they were vacating. The terms of the agreements also sometimes included folding some proportion of AQAP militants into the Emiratis’ own local forces.

The investigation is a bleak window into one of the less publicized facets of Yemen’s complex civil war. While much of the reporting has focused on the conflict between the ousted government of Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi and the now-fractured Houthi-Saleh alliance, the war has also featured clashes within the pro-government coalition over the prospect of Yemen’s southern provinces seceding, and efforts to roll back AQAP, which has taken advantage of the vacuum of government authority. Fighting AQAP is a complicated task; in the absence of central governance, AQAP has integrated itself into the network of local, often tribal governing structures. The Associated Press notes that, to many Yemenis trying to provide some semblance of order in the midst of civil war, it is seen as just one faction among many that must be managed through cooperation and local diplomacy.

In the tangled web of Yemeni tribal politics, it is sometimes hard to tell where one faction ends and AQAP begins. A U.S. raid in January 2017 killed Abdulrauf al Dhahab–and also resulted in the deaths of a Navy SEAL and several civilians. As the Ticker noted at the time, Dhahab was “a brother-in-law of of Anwar al-Awlaqi with deep ties to AQAP. But Dhahab was also a Hadi supporter on the Saudi-backed government’s payroll” who had been asked to mediate a dispute between local tribal groups and AQAP. The Associated Press also notes the case of Adnan Rouzek, a Salafi commander appointed by Hadi who has staffed up his militia with AQAP fighters, including an AQAP officer who escaped from a prison in Aden in a jailbreak in 2008. Rouzek’s unit has gained a reputation for its brutality and posts videos online that evoke those of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Last November, AP reports, he was tapped to head the government’s operations against the Houthis in Taiz, Yemen’s cultural hub, and given $12 million to fund his forces.

The AP investigation found that U.S. forces appeared to be aware of the arrangements being made with AQAP but allowed them to proceed. That fits with the U.S. approach to the conflict in Yemen; as Daniel Byman wrote last week, the United States has given a “yellow light” to the Saudis and Emiratis, expressing occasional concern but still providing support and for the most part remaining aloof from the Gulf intervention force’s operational decisions. In practice, that has meant accepting Saudi and Emirati forces’ prioritization of destroying Iranian-backed Houthi rebels over all other objectives, including defeating a terrorist group that just a few years ago was regularly attacking targets in the United States and Saudi Arabia.