Saudi Arabia Orders Thousands of Its Students Studying in Canada to Come Home

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AUG 8, 2018: The Saudi government has canceled scholarships for thousands of Saudi students studying in Canada and ordered them to come home.

The Kingdom has also cancelled flights to Toronto by its national airline and halted purchases of Canadian wheat and barley as it ramps up retaliation for Ottawa’s criticism of its human rights and detention of activists.

And on Wednesday, Saudi authorities said it was considering further punitive measures and ruled out mediating the dispute.

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, said at a news conference in Riyadh, “There is nothing to mediate. A mistake has been made and a mistake should be corrected.”

The moves come after officials in the Canadian government’s foreign affairs office criticized via Twitter the Saudi government for arresting human rights activists last week, which inspired the Saudis to almost immediately cancel diplomatic ties and hold on new business and investments between the two countries.

In a statement posted on Twitter on Sunday, the kingdom’s foreign affairs ministry denounced Canada’s comments as “blatant interference” in its domestic affairs and a “major, unacceptable affront” to its laws and judicial process.

Several countries have expressed support for Saudi Arabia, including Egypt and Russia, which both told Ottawa it was unacceptable to lecture the kingdom on human rights.

“The government should have been more careful when it tweeted concerns about the arrest of human rights activists in Saudi Arabia”, a former Canadian diplomat said.

Colin Robertson, vice-president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and a career diplomat, said “diplomacy by tweet” is a bad way to issue policy statements.

“Diplomacy by tweet is best taken with great care… as we have learned to our cost,” Robertson said in an interview with CTV News.

“You cannot say in 247 characters or 400 characters the nuance that you want to capture in a diplomatic statement.”

Robertson said a tweet about Saudi Arabia arresting women’s rights activists is the cause of Canada’s current problems with the kingdom, whose leaders took offense to the call for the activists’ “immediate release.”

“They felt it prejudged their judicial system,” he said.

The latest retaliatory move could be costly for Canadian universities, which receive hundreds of millions of dollars in tuition fees from the Saudi government for Saudi students studying there, The Globe and Mail reported.

“This is awful for these students, many who are not likely to be in Canada over the summer but now scrambling with what to do with their lives. Unjust!” tweeted Bessma Momani, a professor at the University of Waterloo.

According to official statistics from the Saudi Gazette, the Saudi government provides scholarships to 8,076 students in Canada. Those students are accompanied by 6,508 dependents.

That number includes more than 800 doctor trainees in teaching hospitals, who not only provide more than $100,000 per year in medical tuition, but provide medical services for Canadians at no cost to taxpayers there.

Despite the apparent escalation in the diplomatic feud between Saudi Arabia and Canada, the United States has so far decided to stay out of it.

“Both sides need to diplomatically resolve this together,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters Tuesday. “We can’t do it for them. They need to resolve it together.”

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