Saudi state airline Saudia said in a post on its official Twitter account on Monday that it was suspending flights to and from Toronto, the latest in a series of measures the kingdom announced on Monday in its diplomatic row with Canada.
The kingdom froze new trade and investment with Canada on Sunday after Ottawa urged Riyadh to free arrested rights activists. It also recalled its ambassador and gave the Canadian ambassador 24 hours to leave the country.
Canada on Monday refused to back down in its defense of human rights.
In her first public response to Saudi Arabia’s actions, foreign minister Chrystia Freeland said, “Canada will always stand up for human rights in Canada and around the world, and women’s rights are human rights.”
The kingdom will also suspend educational exchange programmes with Canada and move Saudi scholarship recipients to other countries, Saudi-owned Al Arabiya reported on Monday.
“It would be a shame for those students if they are deprived of the opportunity to study here,” Freeland told reporters.
The moves were a stern rebuke to Canada after the country on Friday expressed concern over the arrests of activists in Saudi Arabia, including prominent women’s rights campaigner Samar Badawi, and called for their release.
Riyadh said that amounted to “a blatant interference in the Kingdom’s domestic affairs, against basic international norms and all international protocols.”
Saudi Arabia’s sudden sharp response to criticism shows the limits of reforms by Saudi Arabia’s 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who runs its day-to-day government. He has launched a campaign of social and economic change, but has not eased the absolute monarchy’s total ban on political activism.
In recent months Saudi Arabia has lifted a ban on women driving, but it has also arrested activists, including more than a dozen high-profile campaigners for women’s rights.
In the fist comments by Washington since the dispute erupted, a U.S. State Department official said the United States had asked Riyadh for details on the detention of activists.
“We continue to encourage the government of Saudi Arabia to respect due process and to publicise information on the status of legal cases,” the official added.
On Monday, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir criticised Canada’s calls to free arrested civil society activists as a position built on “misleading” information.
The moves, carried on the official Saudi Press Agency, caught diplomats in Riyadh off guard. Both the Saudi and Canadian ambassadors were away on leave at the time.
The GCC, the Arab League and Palestine also supported Saudi policy. But Qatar, which has been locked in a diplomatic rift with Saudi Arabia and other neighbours for over a year, said on its foreign ministry’s official Twitter account that the GCC secretary general’s statement did not represent its view of the situation.
Saudi-Canadian trade, at around $4bn, consists largely of Saudi exports of petrochemicals, plastics and other products. In 2014, the Canadian unit of U.S. weapons maker General Dynamics Corp won a contract worth up to $13bn to build light-armoured vehicles for Saudi Arabia, in what Ottawa said was the largest advanced manufacturing export win in Canadian history.
“We are waiting for Saudi Arabia to offer some more specifics on what they intend to do,” Freeland said when asked about the arms deal.