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How the Saudi-Canada feud is playing out in Arab media

Saudi Arabia is widely denounced for human rights abuses. Now its media is attacking Canada's record.

by Ghalia Bdiwe
Aug 9 2018, 6:29pm

The feud between Canada and Saudi Arabia shows no sign of abating, with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offering no apologies about his government’s criticism of the Middle Eastern power’s crackdown on human rights activists, as Saudis maintain it’s up to Canada to fix its “mistake.”

In Canada, much of the media attention has focused on the unexpected, and exaggerated, response from Saudi Arabia, that has expelled and removed diplomatic envoys, pulled thousands of students pursuing degrees in Canada and patients seeking medical treatment, and is contemplating further action. At the same time, Conservative pundits have trained their fire on how Trudeau’s government has handled the dispute, suggesting it would have a dramatic effect on the Canadian economy.

In Saudi Arabia, the media coverage has predictably been anti-Canadian. In a twist, news outlets under one of the most oppressive regimes in the world have turned the question of human rights back on Canada, slamming its treatment of Indigenous people, the conditions inside Canadian prisons and other Canadian domestic affairs. Saudi allies have also chimed in, while a rival nation in the region has tried to use the drama to its political advantage. We delved into the claims and accusations.

What Saudi media is saying about Canada

Since the 1990s, Saudi Arabia has sought to become a prominent source of news and entertainment in the region, investing in a host of private media outlets such as MBC group, and Alarabiya, most of which are run outside of the kingdom.

Al-Arabiya TV, which has the highest number of social media followers in the Arab world among other Arabic-owned TV stations, has been publishing since the beginning of the dispute a series of video reports and online articles on Canada’s human rights records. One of the most viewed and controversial video reports talked about the conditions inside Canadian prisons. Al-Arabiya claimed that it based its criticism on a report form the BC Civil Liberties Association. The video made different accusations, including the over-use of violence against prisoners, bad nutrition and health services, in addition to lengthy trials and solitary confinements.

Numerous Canadian news reports have described disturbing conditions in some Canadian prisons, including Ontario facilities where guards can assault inmates “often with complete impunity”. Last year, the federal correctional investigator also highlighted that spending cuts in 2014 resulted in a fixed daily food budget of just $5.41 per inmate.

The Al-Arabiya video did not compare the situation in Canadian prisons to that of Saudi Arabia — which is regularly denounced for having some of the highest rates of prisoner executions in the world, and just this week crucified a man — nor any other country, however most of the commenters on the video tended to see Canada’s prison conditions as being better than those in the Arab world.

In a separate news item, Saudi analyst Ayed Al Rashidi compared the treatment of Canada’s Indigenous peoples to the Muslim Rohingya, who have been fleeing violence by Myanmar, saying “Canadian Indigenous people are in a terrible situation, they are displaced and killed…” He also challenged Canadian media to broadcast the real truth about Indigenous people. Social media viewers found his comparison mostly absurd and doubted the analyst’s knowledge of the issue. Canada’s abysmal treatment of Indigenous people over the years has been well documented, including by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which exposed the horrors of the residential school system. Indigenous people continue to be disproportionately represented in the prison system, in the foster care system; many communities haven’t had clean tap water for years, and suicide rates are dramatically higher than non-Indigenous people. The government has vowed to address some of these injustices as it works towards “reconciliation”, but Trudeau himself has acknowledged that “Canada remains a work in progress.”

Writer Nadia Al Shehrani, who described herself as a Saudi living in the diaspora, focused her criticism on the Alwatan news website on the case of Monika Schaefer, the Canadian Holocaust denier who is on trial in Germany for "incitement to hatred". The writer commented “the Canadian foreign affairs have forgotten that its citizens are more in need of it’s attention than other citizens in the world.”

The Ontario Civil Liberties Association has urged the Canadian government to end the "unjust and immoral" imprisonment of Monika Schaefer, a stance questioned by B’Nai Brith, a Jewish human rights group. In any event, Canada has stated that it is providing consular services to a Canadian citizen who was detained in Munich. And similar hate crimes and hate speech cases have been prosecuted in Canada.

Another Al Arabiya report challenged the arrests of “prisoners of conscience” in Canada, such as the deceased Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel, who published Nazi propaganda and was convicted in the 80s of “spreading false news”. It claimed Jordan Peterson, the University of Toronto psychology professor turned darling of the alt right, had been “detained” because of his views, which did not happen.

Translation: Some prisoners of conscience in Canada: Jordan Peterson and Denis Rancourt — detained because of their opinions”

Raif Badawi, whose sister’s arrest was the reason Canada criticised Saudi Arabia in the first place, is a prisoner of conscience in Saudi Arabia, too. In 2015 a graphic video of his public flogging in a square outside a mosque in his home city of Jeddah generated global outcry. According to Amnesty, Saudi Arabia has “dozens of outspoken activists, human rights defenders, writers and lawyers remain behind bars ... for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly." Amnesty urged governments to pressure Saudi Arabia to stop its crackdown on human rights.

What Saudi Arabia's allies are saying

Saudi allies such as the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Egypt have launched media campaigns to back up the Saudi position. The Egyptian Al-Watan newspaper wrote on Monday about the “black history of Canada Human Rights’ violations” saying “Canada has probably forgotten about the human rights file inside its country.” The article picked up a number of issues including what it called “discrimination against Aboriginal people and failing to protect their lands and resources," explaining “the Canadian government promise to respect and protect Indigenous peoples' rights contradict its failing policy in dealing with the hunting and fishing rights for Indigenous peoples contained in an official treaty.” According to the newspaper, the “intentional” flooding of the Peace River in British Columbia to build the Site C Dam violates treaty rights. The flooding has not actually occurred yet, and the West Moberly and Prophet River First Nations are seeking an injunction in B.C. Supreme Court to stop the project from moving ahead. They argue that flooding the river betrays their constitutionally held treaty rights. A previous court challenge failed.

Al-Watan continued its list of accusations against Canada by mentioning the mass shooting at a Quebec mosque that killed six worshippers and injured 19 others, and referring to the anti-Islamophobia bill introduced in Canada's parliament as proof of the hatred that exists against Muslims in Canada. Many Muslims in Canada supported the anti-Islamophobia bill, which included a declaration from parliament condemning Islamophobia, and praised it for defending their rights.

View from Arab human rights groups

Human rights centers in Saudi Arabia and the UAE also weighed in, framing Canada’s criticism of the Kingdom’s crackdown on human rights activists as “interfering in the country’s internal affairs”. The president of the Saudi National Society for Human Rights said "it is important not to use the human rights file for political reasons by some Western countries, including Canada, which often raises issues either based on wrong information or for political and self-interest reasons under the pretext of human rights.”

Similarly, the UAE-based Human Rights Commission said “Canada intervention in the Kingdom’s internal affairs contradicts with international customs.”

Scoring political points

A media war has already been playing out between a Saudi-led coalition of Arab countries and Qatar. In the past few days, Qatar used its prominent news outlet Al Jazeera to launch a campaign against Saudi’s dispute with Canada. Al Jazeera criticized an image made by a Twitter account belonging to a Saudi Arabian youth group which showed an aircraft heading towards Toronto's CN Tower with a warning, and then linked the Twitter account to the Saudi Royal Court Advisor Soud Al-Kahtani who had promoted the account in the past. After social media users pointed out the threatening nature of the photo, Infographic KSA deleted the tweet and posted an apology saying the aircraft was intended to symbolize the return of the ambassador. The Saudi Arabia Ministry of Information shut down the group’s account for investigation.

In another piece, Al Jazeera described Saudi Arabia’s reaction to the dispute with Canada as “a new series of adolescent-like politics," a reference to the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is 32 years old. It concluded that “Saudi Arabia is not accepting any foreign criticism and will continue to show off its power especially now that it has good relationships with the American president Donald Trump.”

Cover image of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in Jeddah on June 6, 2018. Photo by Balkis Press/ABACAPRESS.COM