In early August, Saudi Arabia called for the withdrawal of all Saudi students from Canadian postsecondary institutions, including the University of Toronto, by the end of the month, amidst a series of sanctions against Canada. This was in response to criticism tweeted by Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland regarding the crackdown on dissidents in Saudi Arabia. Riyadh viewed Freeland’s human rights advocacy as “interference” in its domestic affairs.
Currently, many Saudi students are in Canada in order to continue their education. Some asylum seekers fear harassment, as the deadline to return has already passed; others fear imprisonment due to their links to Saudi dissident activists.
The Saudi call for withdrawal is gravely concerning. International studies are a key means of development for all parties involved. University education is not just important for employment; it enables scholars from a variety of backgrounds to share, challenge, and develop ideas and, ultimately, affect change in society.
International students, like the Saudis in Canada, contribute to the academic community and, in turn, gain knowledge, experience, and skills to benefit their own countries. With the withdrawal of these students, we not only lose the opportunity to learn a sliver of what exists beyond us, but we lose our ability to influence the ideas of those abroad, which may be essential in creating global change. Both Saudi Arabia and Canada stand to lose from the withdrawal. Saudi Arabia should reconsider this decision.
At the same time, it is important to recognize that Saudi Arabia is justified to defend its sovereignty. Defendants of Saudi Arabia’s decision have claimed that the harsh attitude toward dissidents is part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s slow, but effective, plan to produce real . Critical commentary from foreign governments only serves to complicate Prince Salman’s ability to realize these reforms.
Furthermore, while Saudi Arabia is notorious for inflicting violence and terror unto its opponents, the fact remains that human rights violations are not unique to Saudi Arabia. For Canada to single out Saudi Arabia reflects a selective foreign policy. Furthermore, Freeland’s comments contradict the fact that Canada enables Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations — after all, the very same Trudeau government recently backed a massive arms deal with the Saudis.
Perhaps Canada should re-evaluate its expectations of Saudi Arabia and other countries it criticizes for human rights violations. What we define as human rights is largely based on Western ideals and histories, and to impose our distinct experience onto other cultures is problematic.
We have spent decades, if not centuries, structuring and improving a culture of rights and freedoms. It is not fair, then, to expect the same reforms in countries like Saudi Arabia to occur immediately. In fact, we should not pretend that Canada is morally superior, as it continues to commit its own human rights violations, namely against Indigenous peoples.
While we should not condone what is morally reprehensible in Saudi Arabia, we need to restructure the ways in which we frame our interests and goals, and how we work with international bodies to address human rights concerns. Human rights law tends to be incredibly ambiguous, requiring the consent of states to function.
Indeed, we need a global, legal infrastructure that ensures accountability and outlines specific expectations. It is necessary for other countries and powers to speak out against Saudi Arabia’s tirades, and for our criticisms to include specific alternatives and practices that can take place, while at the same time acknowledging the vast differences in the cultural climates of such nations. At the very least, where the goal is to advance human rights abroad, we should recognize that Twitter diplomacy can be disrespectful and gravely counterproductive.
The advancement of our national interests and goals in the realm of international relations requires a combination of utopian ideals and pragmatism. It is unfortunate that Saudi students have fallen victim to the complexities of global politics and diplomacy. The Canadian government and universities should do their utmost to resolve the dispute, so as to ensure that Saudi students can resume their education.
Rehana Mushtaq is a third-year English and Religion student at University College.