Saudi Arabia’s state airline will suspend all flights to and from Toronto starting next week, amid a intensifying diplomatic row between the two countries following Canada’s refusal to back down from comments in defense of human rights inside the Kingdom.
In her first public response to Saudi Arabia’s actions Monday, Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said, “Canada will always stand up for the protection of human rights, including women’s rights and freedom of expression around the world.”
The statement comes after Riyadh announced the expulsion of the Canadian ambassador and freezing of all new trade and investment with Canada, although it remained unclear to what extent the decision would impact the pre-exisiting multibillion-dollar economic relationship between Ottawa and Riyadh.
The spat began last week after the Canadian Foreign Ministry expressed concern over the arrests of activists in Saudi Arabia in a series of tweets.
On Monday the row appeared to take a bizarre turn, when the Saudi Ministry of Media ordered the shut down of a popular Saudi Twitter account owing to an inappropriate image shared in support of the country’s decision to expel the Canadian ambassador.
The verified account, Infographic KSA, had earlier tweeted an image of an Air Canada flight superimposed over the Toronto skyline, flying toward the CN Tower.
However, social media users were quick to point out the image appeared to reference the attack on the World Trade Center in New York. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers involved in the 9/11 attacks were Saudi citizens.
Text on the graphic read: “Sticking one’s nose where it doesn’t belong,” and “As the Arabic saying goes: ‘He who interferes with what doesn’t concern him finds what doesn’t please him.’”
The tweet from was deleted shortly after it was sent and Infographic KSA later issued an apology, according to CNN affiliate CBC News.
“The aircraft was intended to symbolize the return of the ambassador,” the apology said. “We realize this was not clear and any other meaning was unintentional.”
Infographic KSA describes itself on its website as a non-profit project “managed by a group of Saudi youth who are interested in technology and social media facts backed by numbers & evidence.”
Their twitter account had more than 350,000 followers before it was deleted, according to CBC News.
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.
Both Freeland and the Canadian Foreign Ministry have voiced concerns over reports that Badawi had been arrested.
“Canada stands together with the Badawi family in this difficult time, and we continue to strongly call for the release of both Raif and Samar Badawi,” Freeland said in a tweet last week.
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.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said Monday he believes Canada’s position is based on “misleading information.”
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.
In addition to the other measures enacted, Saudi Arabia said Monday that it would relocate about 7,000 Saudi scholarship recipients studying in Canada.
CNN’s Mohammad Tawfeeq, Nada Altaher and Maya Yang contributed to this report