Is Saudi Arabia Really So Angry at Canada Over a Tweet?

Last week, the Saudi government expelled the Canadian ambassador from Riyadh, and canceled flights, educational exchanges, and trade and investment activities between the two countries.

This crisis was precipitated by a tweet — published both in English and, crucially, in Arabic — on Aug. 3 from the Canadian foreign ministry saying it was “gravely concerned” about the arrest of women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia and urging the Saudi government to “immediately release them.” 

To many observers, especially in the West, this incident is proof that the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, is not the reformer he claims to be, but rather an impulsive authoritarian. That’s understandable. On the surface such a series of drastic steps seem like a massive overreaction. But there’s far more going on here than meets the eye. 

This situation must be understood in the context of Saudi and Islamic culture. Any Arab leader, particularly a young one who has recently assumed power in a traditional and mostly tribal society, has to carefully maintain his and his country’s stature and prestige, what classical Muslim scholars called hayba. This refers to the awe and respect that a ruler and his state must command in order to maintain order and stability without having to resort to excessive coercion, and without which there is no basis for legitimate rule. 

This means that Prince Mohammed cannot allow himself or his country to be publicly lectured by Western leaders — especially in his own language. This was particularly the case since the Canadian embassy in Riyadh posted the tweet in Arabic, ensuring a wide circulation on local social media. Such perceived blatant interference in Saudi Arabia’s domestic affairs could not go unanswered without damaging the prestige of the state in the eyes of its people.

Let’s be clear: This has nothing to do with Prince Mohammed’s status as a reformer. The crown prince’s stated goal is social, economic, and cultural and religious transformation of his kingdom — not political reform. This is a point his Western critics often forget. In fact, to implement the enormous changes he wants, he has felt the need to further limit the margin of free speech in order to control public debate on these reforms and ensure that they do not escalate into civil unrest.

What he has been doing — and at warp speed — is reforming the economy by eliminating wasteful subsidies, a perilous political task even under the best of circumstances. Furthermore, he is taking on an entrenched reactionary religious establishment: carrying out an aggressive fight against extremism, working to eliminate extremist materials from school curriculums, and changing the message that the clerical establishment sends to the Muslim world. He is also working aggressively to eliminate many of the constraints on women, like lifting the driving ban and, gradually and quietly, tempering the restrictive guardianship laws imposed on women.

Religious conservatives are pushing back. One of the ways they try to undermine Prince Mohammed is by claiming that his reforms are the product of an “American agenda” that aims to Westernize Saudi society and distance it from its Islamic roots. Given the close ties that the kingdom maintains with the West, these false allegations resonate with the masses. And Saudi leaders have surely not forgotten what happened to the shah of Iran when he was accused of implementing an America agenda: Clerics used the charge to inflame the people against him and he was deposed in a revolution.

The Canadian government’s public scolding was therefore seen as an unacceptable affront that required a vigorous response. For Prince Mohammed, it is imperative that his reforms are not seen to be a result of Western political pressure, but rather in the interests of the country, the people, their faith and their culture. He cannot allow outsiders to try and dictate their views to the kingdom’s leadership or attempt to reach out directly to the Saudi people in such matters without impacting the hayba of the state.

Does this mean that the Saudi government didn’t overreact? No. But Western nations have a vested interest in the success of Saudi Arabia’s attempt to transform itself, and so they must understand the political limitations and treacherous risks under which the leadership is attempting to bring about change. Prince Mohammed has every interest in maintaining good relations between his country and the West. The crown prince is very open to Western leaders and is in constant communication with many of them. Feel-good public posturing may play well with liberals in Canada, but quiet diplomacy is far more effective. 

Published by the New York Times on August 13, 2018.