Amid escalating tensions that are damaging economic and diplomatic ties between the countries, Saudi Arabia said Monday that it would relocate about 7,000 Saudi scholarship recipients studying in Canada.
The move is in response to Canadian officials accusing Saudi Arabia of human rights violations and demanding the release of activists imprisoned in the kingdom, Saudi Education Ministry spokesman Mubarak al-Osaimi wrote on Twitter.
The Saudi government has said it considers the Canadian position an assault on its sovereignty.
“We will be able to accommodate this number of students in excellent countries such as the US, UK, Australia and New Zealand,” Jasser bin Sulaiman Al Harbash, Saudi Arabia’s deputy minister of education for scholarship, told state-run television.
This is in addition to suspending training programs and fellowships in Canada, two Saudi Education Ministry officials said.
Saudi Arabia has already frozen all new trade and investment deals. State airline Saudia said it is suspending flights to and from Toronto starting August 13.
In a Sunday statement, its Foreign Affairs Ministry gave Canadian Ambassador Dennis Horak 24 hours to leave the country. Saudi Arabia also recalled its own envoy.
“The Kingdom views the Canadian position as an affront … that requires a sharp response to prevent any party from attempting to meddle with Saudi sovereignty,” read the statement, adding that it retained the “right to take further action.”
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said she was “deeply concerned” about the planned expulsion but stressed Canada will continue to advocate for the protection of human rights.
Bahrain, a staunch Saudi ally, said it backed the Saudi move in a statement on Monday. The country’s foreign ministry slammed what it called “unacceptable intervention in the internal affairs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” according to Bahrain’s official news agency.
The statement follows a series of tweets from the Canadian Foreign Ministry last week urging the Saudi authorities to “immediately release” civil-rights activists.
A recent Saudi government crackdown has seen a number of high-profile activists detained, including women’s rights campaigner Samar Badawi, whose brother Raif has been behind bars since 2012 and is sentenced to receive 1,000 lashes.
According to Human Rights Watch, Badawi was arrested August 1 as part of an “unprecedented government crackdown on the women’s rights movement that began on May 15, 2018, and has resulted in the arrest of more than a dozen activists.”
Amnesty International also has sided with Canada and called on states with influence in Saudi Arabia – namely, the United States, United Kingdom and France – to end their silence with regard to Saudi Arabia’s treatment of “human rights defenders.”
“The world cannot continue to look the other way,” said Samah Hadid, Amnesty’s Middle East director of campaigns. “It is now time for other governments to join Canada in increasing the pressure on Saudi Arabia to release all prisoners of conscience immediately and unconditionally, and end the crackdown on freedom of expression in the country.”
In a tweet Thursday, Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said she was “very alarmed” to learn of Badawi’s arrest and that “Canada stands together with the Badawi family.”
On Friday, Canada’s official foreign policy account followed up, tweeting that “Canada is gravely concerned about additional arrests of civil society and women’s rights activists in #SaudiArabia, including Samar Badawi. We urge the Saudi authorities to immediately release them and all other peaceful #humanrights activists.”
Samar Badawi is one of the most high-profile women’s rights activists in Saudia Arabia, a country governed by a strict interpretation of Sunni Islam that limits the roles women can play in society. Women were only recently granted the right to drive and are required to get approval from a male guardian for most basic activities.
Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and first lady Michelle Obama presented Badawi with the US Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award in 2012 for her advocacy work.
Badawi previously served seven months in jail in 2010 for disobeying her father, who she said had physically abused her from the age of 14 after her mother died of cancer.
The statement released by the Saudi Foreign Ministry on Sunday accused the Canadian government of “blatant interference in the Kingdom’s domestic affairs.”
“The Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs has expressed disbelief by this negative unfounded comment, which was not based in any accurate or true information,” the statement read.
“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.”
The Saudi Foreign Ministry said those arrested were “lawfully detained by the Public Prosecution for committing crimes punishable by applicable law, which also guaranteed the detainees’ rights and provided them with due process during the investigation and trial.”
Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir reiterated those remarks in a Monday tweet and added that Canada’s claims are “based on misleading information.” He did not elaborate.
Trade between the two countries exceeded $3 billion last year, according to the Canadian government.
CNN’s Eliott C. McLaughlin, Mohammed Tawfeeq, Nada Altaher and Maya Yang contributed to this report.