In 2014, Saudi Arabia sentenced the liberal blogger Raif Badawi to 1,000 lashes and ten years in prison for “insulting Islam”—that is, for criticizing the power and influence of the country’s clergy. Badawi has thus far received 50 lashes but remains in prison. Last week, Saudi police arrested his sister and fellow human-rights activist Samar, prompting the Canadian foreign minister, and the foreign ministry itself, to send tweets calling for her release. In response, Riyadh suspended diplomatic relations, instructed Saudis in Canada to return home, and threatened economic sanctions. Elliott Abrams, noting that the tweets in question are neither “harsh” nor “shocking,” comments:
The Raif Badawi case has long been a matter of international concern and comment. [Previous American statements on the matter were] surely tougher than the Canadian comments. Moreover, the United States had no actual link to the case whereas Badawi’s wife and three children are now Canadian citizens. . . .
The Saudi position amounts to this: no government may comment on anything that happens in the kingdom. Any such comment is a violation of Saudi sovereignty. . . That’s an untenable position in 2018. Remember Ronald Reagan calling the Soviet Union “totalitarian darkness” and an “evil empire?” Yet the Soviets did little more than protest verbally, while relations continued normally. . . .
I suppose the Saudis are sending a message that such criticism will come at a high cost, or at least at a high cost unless you’re the United States. One can well imagine that numerous other countries will in fact be scared off, not wanting to pay the price the Canadians will. . . .
I remain supportive of the social and economic reform efforts associated with [Saudi Arabia’s] Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and wish him every success in them. They are critical to the country’s future. I can understand, even if I cannot always support, his efforts to control every aspect of the pace of change lest his experiment with modernizing so many parts of Saudi life evoke so much internal opposition that it fails. But there’s no way to defend what the Saudis have done here. Their foreign ministry should have issued a statement saying the Canadians should butt out, they have their facts wrong, we resent it, and so on, and had their ambassador angrily say the same to the foreign minister—and left it at that. What they have done is an unforced error.
And while I’m at it, hats off to the Canadians for their concern about the family of a Canadian citizen and about human rights around the world.