As Saudi Arabia and Canada clash over women’s rights activists, U.S. treading lightly

Saudi women’s rights activist Samar Badawi, center, receives the International Women of Courage Award from then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, right, as First Lady Michelle Obama looks on, during a ceremony in 2012.
(AFP / Getty Images)

The Trump administration on Tuesday urged Canada and Saudi Arabia to settle an escalating diplomatic fight but avoided voicing support for the women’s rights activists whose jailing is at the heart of the dispute.

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

Nauert said the Trump administration stands for human liberties and due process but she refused to side with Canada or condemn Saudi Arabia’s arrest of the activists.

Both Saudi Arabia and Canada are “close partners” to Washington, she said, and insisted the United States has a “regular dialogue,” albeit a mostly private one, with the government in Riyadh about human rights.


Past U.S. administrations sometimes criticized the ultra-conservative kingdom’s human rights record. But President Trump has courted a close friendship with King Salman and his heir apparent, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Trump also has sharply criticized Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a spat over trade tariffs.

The Canadian government, in a series of tweets over the weekend, strongly condemned the recent arrest by Saudi authorities of Samar Badawi, a prominent women’s rights activist, and others.

Badawi is the sister of writer Raif Badawi, who has been in a Saudi prison since 2012 and was publicly lashed for criticizing Saudi clerics in a blog that he founded.

In its criticism, Canada expressed “concern” for the activists and urged Saudi Arabia to release them immediately.


Riyadh was furious, accusing Ottawa of interfering in its domestic affairs. In response, the Saudis expelled the Canadian ambassador, recalled its own ambassador from Ottawa, and froze all new trade and investment with Canada.

Saudi Arabia also said it was suspending educational exchange programs with Canada and canceling flights to Toronto by the state airline Saudia.

But Canada’s foreign minister remained firm.

“Canada will always stand up for human rights in Canada and around the world,” Chrystia Freeland said, “and women’s rights are human rights.”


Saudi Arabia is particularly sensitive to outside criticism at a time when Prince Mohammed has sought to project a less radical image. He has eased some highly restrictive social rules but hasn’t expanded freedom in the political sphere.

This summer, he lifted a ban on women driving in the kingdom but also launched a crackdown on civil society activists, including several women’s rights defenders.

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