By Isobel Thompson, vanityfair.com
The Trump administration, reaffirming its casual disinterest in human rights, is refusing to take sides in the escalating diplomatic feud between Ottawa and Riyadh.
An extraordinary diplomatic feud between Canada and Saudi Arabia, over Riyadh’s treatment of civil-rights activists, has cast a harsh light on Washington’s new geopolitics in the age of Trump. The spat began Sunday, when Canada condemned the arrests of several political activists, including the women’s rights campaigner Samar Badawi, and called for their release. The Saudis responded to this fairly anodyne criticism by expelling the Canadian ambassador, banning new trade, freezing upcoming Saudi Airlines flights to Canada, and ordering the withdrawal of some 12,000 Saudi citizens studying at Canadian universities. Monday, tensions took a more ludicrous turn when an account linked to the Saudi government evoked 9/11 by tweeting a graphic depicting an airplane heading toward the Toronto skyline. (The tweet was later deleted and the Saudi embassy in Washington apologized.)
The Trump administration, reaffirming its casual disinterest in human rights, responded to Riyadh’s temper tantrum with equanimity. For about 24 hours, the State Department said nothing. Finally, on Monday night, the administration released a statement that neatly encapsulated Donald Trump’s deepening affinity for the ultra-conservative kingdom and its millennial autocrat, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as well as his cooling relations with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau—a frequent victim of Trump’s diatribes. “Canada and Saudi Arabia are both close allies of the United States,” the State Department said, employing a curiously expansive definition of the term. “We have asked the government of Saudi Arabia for additional information on the detention of several activists. We continue to encourage the government of Saudi Arabia to respect due process and to publicize information on the status of legal cases. We address these broad concerns in our annual Human Rights Report.”
Without the support of its NATO ally, Trudeau’s government doubled down. “Canada will always stand up for the protection of human rights, including women’s rights, and freedom of expression around the world,” Marie-Pier Baril, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Foreign Ministry, shot back. (In a follow-up statement Tuesday, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert dismissed the tiff as a “diplomatic issue” and urged the fine people on both sides to “work it out together.”)
As The Washington Post notes, there is a broader context to Riyadh’s breathtakingly disproportionate response. Crown Prince Salman, better known by the moniker M.B.S., has been aggressively marketing a McKinsey & Co. devised plan called Vision 2030, which aims to wean the kingdom off its reliance on oil by encouraging foreign investment and entrepreneurship, and diversifying the workforce to include women—hence the recent move to allow women to drive (fought for, incidentally, by the imprisoned Badawi). Critical coverage in the Canadian press isn’t conducive to M.B.S.’s Western-focused charm offensive.
At the same time, it does have its uses. The crown prince’s efforts to simultaneously reform and repress his country have not always been popular—particularly the alliances he has cultivated with Trump, Jared Kushner, and even Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu. (In April, the prince’s father, King Salman, released a statement reiterating Saudi’s support for Palestinians.) As the Post notes, a high-octane, low-stakes dispute with Canada offers M.B.S. an easy opportunity to divert attention, and unite his people against a foreign target that isn’t America, with its piles of dollars just waiting to translate Vision 2030 into more than a mirage-like dream cooked up by a team of management consultants.
Ultimately, the White House and M.B.S. have put in too much work to let Trudeau’s bleeding heart and the plight of several detained activists upset their partnership. Despite the poor optics of Kushner’s friendship with M.B.S. (in March, the crown prince and his Emirati counterpart were alleged to be feuding over who had Kushner more deeply in their pocket), Trump has done a stellar job of wooing Saudi Arabia, choosing it as the site of his first foreign trip and inking billions of dollars in arms deals with Riyadh. The Saudis secured Trump’s allegiance in kind, rolling out the red carpet for the president, lining the streets with billboards featuring his tweets, and projecting his visage onto the exterior of the Ritz-Carlton (in whose five-star interior M.B.S. recently imprisoned wealthy rivals until they relinquished their assets). M.B.S. upped the ante with his subsequent three-week-long visit to the U.S., making sure to court the entirety of America’s elite, from Henry Kissinger to Jeff Bezos to The Rock. Indeed, someone, somewhere, was so taken with Vision 2030, that they produced The New Kingdom: a 97-page tribute to M.B.S. packaged as an ad-free, byline-light magazine, and sold in Walmart and assorted supermarkets for $13.99.
In declining to side with Canada, the Trump administration is signaling to Saudi Arabia that it can continue to punish Western allies with weaker stomachs for human-rights abuses. But, then, what’s an ally when an oil-rich dictatorship wants to do business?