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Canada and Saudi Arabia: The Tweet that Sparked a Diplomatic Feud

August 24th, 2018

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Image Credit: Alexander Glandien

We recently learned of news that Saudi Arabia has expelled the Canadian ambassador from the country and has decided to recall its students from Canada.

What caused this diplomatic spat between the two countries? The short answer is: a tweet. It started with a tweet sent by Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland criticizing the Saudi government over the detention of human rights activists.

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In response, Saudi Arabia responded by taking the following retaliatory steps:

• expelled the Canadian ambassador and announced that it would pull out more than 15,000 Saudis studying in Canada on government-funded courses or grants at colleges and universities;

• ordered a suspension of patients being transferred to Canada for medical treatment;
announced that it is suspending Saudi state airline flights to Toronto;

• on Monday, August 6th, the Saudi Arabian Cultural Bureau, a division of the Ministry of Education, announced on its website that by the end of the Islamic calendar year in September it will suspend all training and scholarship programs Saudi students are enrolled in at Canadian institutions;

• any accompanying family members of the Saudi students are also expected to leave Canada which according to The Business Insider could bring the number of Saudi nationals departing up to 20,000.

The Saudi government intends to place the Saudi students and their tuition in programs in other countries with similar education systems, such as the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand.

No sooner had the Saudi government announced its plans to withdraw its students from Canadian institutions that we hear of a US university announcing its plans to ease admissions process for the Saudi students. Regardless of this offer, relocating so many students to other countries so close to the start of a new academic year is going to be very problematic.

Academicians also see an agenda in this latest move by the Saudi government. According to an interview in Times Higher Education with Dr. Chris Davidson, professor in Middle East politics at Durham University, he sees the transfer of students from Canada to the UK or elsewhere as complicated and costly. Dr. Davidson adds: “I don’t believe that’s their [the Saudi government’s] intention. They want to trim their bloated higher education budget by reducing the amount of students they pay to send to the West.” The Saudi government’s actions are also seen as a warning to other countries to refrain from publicly criticizing Saudi Arabia as done by the Canadian minister.

Canadian universities, especially the smaller institutions, will feel the effects of the financial loss, but they will recover since they continue to be one of leading top countries in attracting and receiving international students. It’s the Saudi students that are going to be affected the most. In an age of political overreaction, we can see that higher education is affected as much as any other entity and blameless students used as pawns.

Source Links:

https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/saudi-removal-students-canada-warning-shot-us-and-uk

https://www.businessinsider.com/saudi-arabia-canada-human-rights-students-2018-8

https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-saudi-arabia-to-withdraw-all-saudi-students-studying-at-canadian/

https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/us-university-welcomes-saudi-students-canada

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/06/opinion/saudi-arabia-canada

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