Saudi Arabia and Canada agree to restore full diplomatic relations

Saudi Arabia and Canada have agreed to restore full diplomatic relations almost five years after Riyadh downgraded ties with Ottawa over criticism of the kingdom’s human rights record.

The rapprochement comes after a series of overtures by Saudi Arabia to settle disputes that marked the first few years of day-to-day ruler Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s rise in government, as Riyadh now focuses on its economic reform plans and attracting foreign investments.

The feud with Ottawa was sparked in 2018 after Canada’s embassy in Riyadh wrote a Twitter post in Arabic criticising the detention of activists.

Saudi Arabia froze trade deals with Canada, withdrew its ambassador and barred the Canadian ambassador, who was travelling at the time, from returning. Saudi Arabia also cancelled a scholarship programme under which thousands of its students attended Canadian universities.

The Saudi and Canadian foreign ministries said in similar statements on Wednesday that both wanted “to restore diplomatic relations between the two countries on the basis of mutual respect and common interests”.

It was not clear whether Ottawa would tone down its criticism of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, but Dennis Horak, who was Canada’s ambassador at the time of the feud, told broadcaster CBC that “you can walk and chew gum at the same time”.

Prince Mohammed is popular among young Saudi Arabians for introducing social reforms that ended the religious police’s control over public life, but the measures have been accompanied by a crackdown on dissidents.

The spat with Canada was widely seen at the time as another erratic outburst by Prince Mohammed, who had led a military intervention against Iran-backed rebels in Yemen and a regional boycott of Qatar. He had also detained Lebanon’s prime minister and forced him to resign on air.

Months after the dispute with Canada, the Saudi Arabian commentator Jamal Khashoggi was killed inside the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul, with the CIA later concluding that Prince Mohammed was responsible. He denied involvement, but the killing led to the crown prince being shunned by western capitals.

In recent months, the kingdom has sought to turn round its image as a regional troublemaker by instigating moves to end the war in Yemen, restoring ties with arch-rival Iran and leading ceasefire efforts in Sudan with the US, drawing praise from Washington. Riyadh has also driven the campaign to normalise regional relations with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.

Horak said it “was about time” that Saudi Arabia and Canada restored ties, CBC reported. “They’re an important player and they’re hard to ignore,” he added. “And I think having full diplomatic relations with them allows us to have our voices heard at senior levels, which in Saudi Arabia is what matters.”

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