Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Would 16,000 Saudi grads from Canadian universities not signal greater change at home than this tweet?

If I were a registrar at a Canadian university this morning, I would be calculating the drop in revenues (some $15 billion in total to all) to my institution from the Saudi Arabian decision to withdraw all 16,000 Saudi students currently enrolled in Canadian universities and enrol them in either British or American schools. These students are enrolled with the support of Saudi scholarships and those dollars will no longer be flowing into the Canadian university coffers.

International students pay a significantly higher tuition (4 times higher) than do Canadian students. And after I had made those preliminary calculations, I would be wondering how to approach the Foreign Affairs department in Ottawa, to ascertain their “read” on the likely outcome of this spat.

It seems that a tweet, (who knew that tweets were now the currency of diplomacy?) asking for the “immediate release” of human rights activists by the Saudi’s so offended the Saudi government (Canada is interfering in the internal affairs of our country) that they have withdrawn their ambassador from Ottawa and frozen all trade and commercial transactions with the Canadian government. Whether or not the sale/purchase of those light armored vehicles from Canada to the Saudi’s will be consummated is an open question this morning.

According to the National Post, the young Saudi prince “has already started a war with Yemen, isolated Qatar, and picked fights with Sweden and Germany when those countries questioned his country’s commitment to human rights.” The point being that the Foreign Affairs minister Chrystia Freeland might have known that a spat like this one was imminent if Canada “intervened” in the Saudi reputation on human rights.

Already announced by the Saudi’s is the sale of a portion of the massive oil company owned by that state, dangling business opportunities for countries like Canada in the sale of fossil fuel equipment and expertise, all of which could now be in jeopardy. Given the already instability injected into the world trade picture by the American president, Canada once saw the opportunity to diversify our trade, in part, by increased trade with Saudi Arabia. That prospect today seems a little doubtful, if not off the table.

The complex interwoven relationship, heretofore, between trade and human rights, has often resulted in countries like Canada that pride themselves in our human rights record (excepting the nation’s history with indigenous peoples) holding back on public criticism of the human rights record of their trading partners, for example, like China. Is that previous stance now outdated by the recent surge of “retaliatory” moves like this current one from the Saudi’s? Is the former “world order” on trade now being undercut by repressive regimes’ feeling emboldened to strike back if and when challenged? Could this new abrasive approach, (even confrontational) be partially a consequence of the arrival on the world stage of the U.S. president, apparently a sycophantic friend of the Saudi’s, who recently sold a considerable supply of military equipment to them over the next decade? Was that sale, for example, another of trump’s multilayered chicanery tactics to stick his thumb in the eye of Iran, the opponent of Saudi Arabia specifically in Yemen? Is it too much of a stretch to wonder out loud if the Saudi’s are not playing into (if not actually playing the hand of) trump’s deviousness? Could NAFTA negotiations be one of the ‘hidden’ impacts of this Saudi move, even though no one, including the officials in Foreign Affairs, will likely be able to prove any connection?

And will the universities in Canada, in whose financial liquidity the federal government has a direct role, petition Ottawa to replace the funds removed by this extraction of Saudi students currently enrolled in Canadian universities?

The Saudi’s are complaining that they are making progress towards women’s equality, with their “right to drive” shift in the last few weeks. They resent any public scorn of their right as a nation to make the kind of changes at the pace of their own choosing and clearly women’s rights rank much higher in North America than they do in the Middle East, at least in some countries.

Is Freeland on solid ground in her vigorous advocacy of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia? Perhaps, yet I wonder if she might have had leverage to curtail or actually to cancel that sale of light armoured vehicles to the Saudi’s, if she wanted to make a statement about how this government is going to behave on the world stage. That might not have had the direct “in-your-face” quality of the latest tweet, but would have staked out a Canadian position that we are not in the business of supporting increased military war in the Middle East, even through the sale and eventual deployment of our vehicles. And that, in itself, would have indirectly made a statement that she and all of Canada knows would be welcomed by the majority of Canadian women, and women around the world.

Diplomacy, if and when it becomes little more than a few angry tweets, devolves into the kind of world trump seems more than capable and desirous of generating, Tweeting, therefore, is a means of communicating that our nation ought to be avoiding at all cost. To enter that fray is to prop up the trump model of engagement on the world stage.

Can Canadians hope that whoever “penned” that tweet is disciplined inside the Foreign Affairs department? Doubtful. Can Canadians expect that Freeland, who has served in an exemplary manner as our representative on the world stage since 2015, will soften her approach to the Saudi’s, and re-integrate the Saudi ambassador into the diplomatic community in Ottawa, and reverse the removal of those 16,000 Saudi students from Canadian universities. After all, their very presence in those institutions, followed by their return to their homeland following graduation, is another inevitable if glacial step in the transformation of the Saudi culture, and indeed of the culture of the Middle East. That observation is hardly “rocket science” and surely it is not outside the purview of the Foreign Affairs minister.

One tweet, even one so offensive to the Saudi’s, ought not to be a pivotal turning point in a relationship that could with increased discretion, diplomacy and mutual respect be mutually beneficial for many decades.

Reports later in the day indicate Minister Freeland is “sticking to her position” on the tweet, while the U.S. and the EU are both seeking further clarification from Saudi Arabia. The Canadian Minister of Finance tells the world, We are standing up for what we believe in!” standing firmly behind Freeland. The Europeans tell us that the Saudi’s will not longer accept shipments of Canadian wheat, deepening the ditch, or perhaps hole, that this dispute is fostering.

We all expect that the Prime Minister will endorse Freeland and Morneau’s position on this one, given his commitment to the cause of feminism here and around the world. It seems, however, that feminism is an extremely worthy public issue warranting the persistent and consistent support of all developed countries. Yet, one wonders if this spat has the potential to set back the Saudi’s commitment to full and equal rights for the women living in their kingdom. If that turns out to be part of the fallout, then the Canadian government will have sabotaged the very cause to which they are so deeply and authentically committed.

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