Canada Learns That No One Wins a Twitter Fight

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In an age when foreign policy is conducted increasingly by social media, Saudi Arabia’s reaction to a pair of Canadian tweets is a reminder that diplomacy by Twitter comes with a few risks.

The tweets, from Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland and via her ministry’s main Twitter account, expressed concern over the latest arrests of social activists in Riyadh. In response, Saudi Arabia suspended diplomatic ties and new trade dealings with Canada, ordered the expulsion of Canada’s ambassador to Riyadh, and recalled its own envoy from Ottawa. The Saudi foreign ministry’s explanation for these measures is that the Canadian criticism was “an affront to the kingdom that requires a sharp response to prevent any party from attempting to meddle with Saudi sovereignty.”

This is hard to credit. Riyadh’s human-rights record routinely attracts criticism — which the authorities brush off just as routinely. Only last week the United Nations human-rights office said it was alarmed about the “seemingly arbitrary detentions” of activists, and called for their unconditional release. This was not met with anything like the fury evoked by the Canadian tweets.

One explanation for the selective Saudi outrage is Freeland’s high profile. Another is the prominence of the female activist named in the two tweets: Samar Badawi, one of the kingdom’s best known activists, and winner of the U.S. State Department’s 2012 International Women of Courage award. She is also the sister of Saudi Arabia’s most famous political dissident, Raif Badawi, who has been in jail since 2012. Freeland herself has appealed for Raif Badawi’s release (his wife and three children are Canadian citizens), only to be told that Canada should mind its own business.

So the minister can hardly have expected a different answer this time. Nor could she have been unmindful of the fact that in 2015, Saudi Arabia briefly recalled its ambassador to Stockholm when Sweden’s foreign minister cited Raif Badawi’s treatment in a broader criticism of Riyadh’s human-rights record. Freeland’s tweet was bound to get a strong reaction.

And then there are the personalities and political concerns of the two young leaders in Ottawa and Riyadh: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, widely known by his initials, MBS. “Both sides are playing politics here,” says Ali Shihabi, founder of the Arabia Foundation, a Washington think-tank. Trudeau, he argues, is “grand-standing and posturing on women’s rights” to compensate for an unpopular decision to persist with a $12 billion deal to sell Saudi Arabia armored personnel carriers. The Canadian criticism, unnecessarily public, certainly smacks a little of virtue-signaling.

For his part, MBS “sees himself as managing an unprecedented and delicate reform process, and doesn’t want outside criticism making it more difficult, let alone from allies who are beneficiaries of Saudi business, so he’s very upset with the Canadians,” Shihabi says.

This charitable view — that the crown prince needs his critics to be silent while he pursues reforms — was first offered up by his admirers last year, when he detained a number of rich and powerful princes as part of an anti-corruption campaign. But the arrest of female activists is harder to defend with that argument. An aspiring social reformer might have better luck seeking the cooperation of activists, not their incarceration.

Equally, a future king with aspirations for a bigger say in world affairs might want to consider a gentler tone with international allies. Earlier this year, Saudi government agencies were told to cut back on contracts with German companies, apparently in response to a comment in November by Germany’s then foreign minister suggesting that Lebanon was a “pawn” of Saudi Arabia.

Fortunately, the spat with Germany did not get out of hand, and the Saudi ambassador to Stockholm returned his post — which allows for some optimism that relations with Canada will return to normal after a time. But Riyadh’s open hostility will make the walk-back longer and harder. And harder still, because it all began on social media, where furies unleashed are notoriously hard to tame.

Since Freeland’s first salvo on Twitter, most of the social-media fire has come from the Saudi side, from government agencies supporting the crown prince and private citizens making increasingly fevered threats of retaliation — including a bizarre campaign to support Quebecois independence. An education ministry spokesman tweeted that the government would relocate all Saudi students (estimates range from 7,000 to 15,000) currently studying in Canada. The Saudi state airline is suspending flights to and from Toronto.

Under normal circumstances, this would be a moment for the U.S. to intercede, and broker a peace between its close allies. But given President Donald Trump’s own hostility to Trudeau, and his admiration of MBS, Canada cannot realistically expect assistance from Washington. Indeed, it might be asking a lot for Trump to desist from joining the Twitter pile-on, with his own broadsides against Trudeau: the American president, like the Saudi prince, isn’t known for being gentle with allies.

For Riyadh and Ottawa, the only course is now to wait for the storm to pass, and then to begin the process of restoring relations the old-fashioned way, with quiet parleys. There’s a lesson for Freeland, and for diplomats everywhere: tweet less, talk more.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a columnist and member of the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and the wider Islamic world.

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