Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland. Picture: REUTERS
Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland. Picture: REUTERS

Washington — Saudi Arabia halted new trade and investment dealings with Canada and suspended diplomatic ties in a dramatic escalation of a dispute over the kingdom’s arrest of a women’s rights activist.

The kingdom recalled its ambassador to Ottawa and ordered the Canadian envoy to Riyadh to leave within 24 hours, according to a foreign ministry statement cited by the Saudi Press Agency. Canada is "seeking greater clarity" about the matter, a spokeswoman for Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said.

The Saudi foreign ministry cited remarks last week by Freeland and the Canadian embassy in Riyadh, criticising Saudi Arabia’s arrests of women’s rights activists including Samar Badawi. She is a Canadian citizen whose brother Raif Badawi, a blogger who was critical of the Saudi government, was already in jail in the kingdom.

"The kingdom views the Canadian position as an affront to the kingdom that requires a sharp response to prevent any party from attempting to meddle with Saudi sovereignty," according to the statement.

The standoff pits a Saudi government that is slowly opening the door to women’s rights against Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, an outspoken champion of women’s advancement, who named a gender-balanced cabinet shortly after his 2015 election.

Just two months ago, Saudi women were given the right to drive a car, yet several of the country’s most prominent women’s rights activists — including some who fought for years to drive — were arrested earlier this year on national security grounds.

"We are seriously concerned by these media reports and are seeking greater clarity on the recent statement from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia," Marie-Pier Baril, a spokeswoman for Freeland, said in an e-mail.

"Canada will always stand up for the protection of human rights, very much including women’s rights, and freedom of expression around the world. Our government will never hesitate to promote these values and believes that this dialog is critical to international diplomacy."

Saudi investments in Canada include G3 Global Holdings, a joint venture between Bunge and Saudi Agricultural & Livestock Investment, which purchased the former Canadian Wheat Board in 2015. Saudi Arabia has invested about $6bn in Canadian businesses since 2006, data compiled by Bloomberg show.

Tanks, armoured vehicles and parts, and motor vehicles accounted for about 45% of Canada’s 2016 exports to the kingdom, while crude oil and copper ores comprised about 98% of imports, according to a government report. Saudi Arabia supplies oil to the Irving refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick.

The arrests were in line with Saudi laws, and those detained have been provided with due process during investigation and trial, according to the foreign ministry statement.

Freeland said in a tweet on August 2 that she was "very alarmed to learn that Samar Badawi, Raif Badawi’s sister, has been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia", and that "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".

So far this year, Canada has exported C$1.4bn in merchandise goods to Saudi Arabia and imported goods worth C$2bn, leaving it with a cumulative year-to-date trade deficit with the kingdom of about C$640m, according to Statistics Canada data.