Recent Posts
HomeBlogCanada-Saudi Relations: Time to Get Back on Track

Canada-Saudi Relations: Time to Get Back on Track

Chrystia Freeland during the Munich Security Conference 2018. 16 February 2018/ By Hildenbrand / MSC

Canada’s determination to stand its ground and absorb the costs won it plaudits from human rights constituencies at home and abroad. But it was a pyrrhic victory. Canada’s ability to actually have an impact and genuinely advance its values or human rights agenda in Saudi Arabia suffered.  

Dennis Horak, Former Canadian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

It’s been nearly two years since an ill-conceived tweet and Saudi Arabia’s massive over-reaction to it upended Canada-Saudi relations in August 2018.

Saudi Arabia’s decision to effectively downgrade diplomatic ties with Canada, cut cultural/student contacts and freeze commercial ties was not pre-meditated. Despite their dissatisfaction with Canada’s neglect of the relationship and Ottawa’s singular focus on human rights, the Saudi-Canada relationship was still valued.

The abrupt derailment had all the hallmarks of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s (MBS) impulsive nature and hyper-sensitivity to criticism (international or domestic). The tweet demanding the “immediate release” of women rights activists unjustly detained on fabricated “security” allegations, provided MBS with the opportunity to send a message to the international community: Critics of Saudi Arabia would pay a heavy price. Targeting a G-7 country in such a high-profile, over-the-top manner would ensure that that message would resonate widely.

Canada wasn’t looking for this kind of fight either. The Government had issued similar – if less incendiary – tweets in the past (as had other countries) with little blowback. To say that the Saudi reaction was a surprise would be an understatement.

But for some within and outside Government, the bilateral derailment provided an opportunity for Canada to underscore its willingness to pay the price to defend its principles and values. Moreover, it freed the Government from having to consider the impact various human rights initiatives might have on the bilateral relationship (it is worth considering, for example, whether Canada would have been as enthusiastically assertive in offering refuge to a young Saudi woman, Rahaf Mohammad Al-Qunn in December 2018 had relations been on a normal footing).

Canada’s determination to stand its ground and absorb the costs won it plaudits from human rights constituencies at home and abroad. But it was a pyrrhic victory. Canada’s ability to actually have an impact and genuinely advance its values or human rights agenda in Saudi Arabia suffered.  

Despite the increasingly authoritarian rule of MBS and the tightening of political space in the Kingdom, the social and economic reform efforts launched by the Crown Prince’s Vision 2030 program and the weakening of the role of the Saudi religious establishment in the Kingdom are significant. While success is far from certain – and the economic fallout from the pandemic, coupled with MBS’s penchant for self-inflicted wounds, raises real questions about the program’s viability going forward – many of the reforms being pursued have had a positive impact, especially on the role of women in Saudi society (although there is much more that needs to happen).

Normal diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia allowed Canada to play a supportive role in these reform efforts, both directly and indirectly.

The thousands of Saudi students who came to Canada annually – men and women – returned to the Kingdom with a different perspective. Many took the lessons they learned here to work as agents of change back in the Kingdom. One Saudi graduate from St. Mary’s, for example, returned home and started a very successful company devoted solely to facilitating the entry of Saudi women into the workforce. These students are no longer coming.

Another, more direct, example of Canadian support for change was the contribution Canada was making to teacher training as part of a broader Saudi initiative to reform the way their sclerotic school system functions. The success of these and other Educational reforms will be a key element in the transformation of Saudi society over the longer term. Canada could have been recognized as a leader in that effort, but that has now also ended.

These two examples may lack the pizazz of a widely shared social media post, but they had a practical value on the ground that no tweet could ever hope to match. Tweeting is Public Relations, not diplomacy. Tweets preach to a choir. They tick brand boxes in a search for “Likes”. Tweets may be politically and emotionally satisfying for Ministers and supporters but, they do nothing to actually change the lives of Saudis, which ostensibly, is the goal of Ottawa’s human rights policies. In this case, however, Canada’s penchant for being seen to be on the “right side” with a tweet undermined the Government’s ability to actually have a meaningful impact. The Government, effectively, traded effectiveness for applause and that is an exchange Canada should not find acceptable nor let stand.

There is a way out of this, but it won’t be easy or entirely comfortable. The Saudis have demanded a public apology and that is rightly off the table. Canada has nothing to apologize for. But there is a way forward and there is precedent.

The Germans and the Swedes found themselves on the outs with Riyadh not so long ago following critical comments about Saudi Arabia by Ministers in their countries. They ultimately succeeded in getting relations back on track through a combination of sustained, high-level diplomatic engagement, determined political will and creative diplomatic drafting of “non-apology apologies” that satisfied the needs of both sides.

It didn’t mean that they suddenly jettisoned their principles or concerns about Saudi Arabia. They understood that normal diplomatic ties were not a seal of approval but a means to an end. They realized that to do everything they wanted to do, including on human rights, they needed to be playing at full diplomatic strength.  

Canada has reportedly made efforts to repair the relationship, but with little success to date. It will be hard and there may be additional complications (including MBS’s quixotic nature). It will take a level of political commitment and sustained engagement – at the most senior levels – that may not be entirely popular among the constituencies who cheered Canada’s “principled” stand and continue to champion the idea of “ghosting” the Kingdom. But it is worth doing.

That doesn’t require sacrificing Canadian principles. On the contrary, it means putting Canada back in a position to actually be able to pursue them and to have an impact – however small – beyond the easily ignored hectoring from the social media sidelines that seems to pass for effective diplomacy these days.

About the Author:

Dennis Horak served as Canadian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain, Yemen, and former Head of Mission in Iran.

Note: The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy or its executive team.

Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  


Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security


Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.


Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.



Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 


Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 



Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.


Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.


Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.



Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor