Saudi Arabia launched an extraordinary campaign against Canada yesterday. Besides expelling the Canadian ambassador, it announced a trade freeze and a suspension of flights to Toronto and said thousands of Saudis currently studying in Canada will be transferred to other countries.
In a more sinister move, a Twitter account with links to the Saudi government raised the spectre of 9/11 by posting a photo of the Toronto skyline with an Air Canada plane apparently heading towards the famous CN Tower.
The cause of all this was what Saudi Arabia described as "blatant interference in the kingdom’s domestic affairs" by the Canadian foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland. Last week Freeland expressed concern about the arrests of civil society and women’s rights activists in the kingdom and called for their release.
A statement from the Saudi foreign ministry said this was "against basic international norms and all international protocols" and "a major, unacceptable affront to the kingdom’s laws and judicial process, as well as a violation of the kingdom’s sovereignty".
The statement continued:
"Throughout its long history, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has never accepted any interference in its domestic affairs by, or orders from any country. 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. It is quite unfortunate to see the phrase 'immediate release' in the Canadian statement, which is a reprehensible and unacceptable use of language between sovereign states."
That is an astonishing thing for the Saudis to say, since the sovereignty issue doesn't seem to have held them back from hurling abuse at Qatar over the last year-and-a-bit.
Basically, Saudi Arabia is trying to have its cake and eat it. Governments can – and do – criticise each other over human rights. That's how it's intended to work. The international system established through the UN and its Human Rights Council is based on the principle of countries monitoring each other's performance by criticising and pointing out areas for improvement. It doesn't work particularly well but that's how it was constructed, as the Saudis are perfectly aware.
Saudi Arabia also has international commitments in the human rights area which override national sovereignty. It made these commitments voluntarily – no one forced it to do so.
Besides being an elected member of the UN Human Rights Council (where it ought to be setting a good example), the kingdom is a party to several human rights treaties: the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
All parties to these treaties have a stake in maintaining them. If one party is found to be flouting them others are entitled to complain; if they don't, the treaties will eventually become worthless.
Like many countries with poor rights records, however, Saudi Arabia's involvement in these treaties – and the Human Rights Council itself – seems to be mainly for the purposes of window-dressing: fending off critics by creating an illusion of good intentions.
Saudi Arabia has had spats with western countries before over human rights – a notable one was the "Death of a Princess" affair with Britain in the 1980s – but they have rarely led to anything as swift and dramatic as its action against Canada.
This more aggressive approach is probably linked to the rise of Mohammed bin Salman, the impetuous crown prince. Open criticism of the kingdom on human rights grounds also undermines his efforts to be perceived as a reformer.
In 2015, shortly after he became deputy crown prince, there was a quarrel with Sweden over a speech by the Swedish foreign minister and another, earlier this year, with Germany over the kingdom's treatment of Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri. In both cases, the kingdom apaprently chose to escalate them beyond the customary levels.
Gregory Gause, a Saudi Arabia specialist at Texas A&M University, interpreted this as "a sign that the crown prince is in control of policy and willing to take risky steps in reaction to what he sees as anti-Saudi actions".
"The old way would have been to make a public statement but to see if things could be smoothed over behind the scenes. The new way is to hit back and then see if things can be smoothed over," Gause said.