A Saudi Arabian lobby group in the United States is warning Canada that its relations with Arab-Muslim countries could suffer in the wake of the federal government’s decision to grant asylum to a Saudi woman fleeing alleged abuse back home.
Eighteen-year-old Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun arrived at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport on Saturday, where she was personally greeted by Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland. Ms. Freeland then introduced the newcomer to TV cameras as a “brave new Canadian.”
Ms. al-Qunun had told authorities she feared her family would kill her if she returned to Saudi Arabia.
A source close to the Saudi government who was not permitted to speak publicly said they believed Ottawa’s actions will have a “negative” effect on Canada-Saudi relations.
Riyadh, however, remains officially silent on what Ottawa has done. As of Monday night, three days after Canada announced it would accept Ms. al-Qunun as a refugee, the oil-rich kingdom still had not released a public statement on the matter.
The young woman fled to Bangkok after escaping her family in Kuwait the week before and mounted a social-media campaign for assistance after Thailand denied her entry. Canada moved quickly to offer her asylum ahead of Australia, where she is believed to have been heading.
Salman Al-Ansari, president and founder of the Saudi American Public Relations Affairs Committee (SAPRAC), took to Twitter on Monday to warn Canada that it may face recrimination from Arab-Muslim countries.
“To our Canadian friends,” Mr. Al-Ansari wrote. “The provocative and immature policies of [Ms. Freeland] and Justin Trudeau against the biggest Middle Eastern country and the heart of the Arab and Muslim world, Saudi Arabia, might lead major Arab-Muslim nations to review their relations with Canada.”
A spokeswoman for SAPRAC said Mr. Al-Ansari was not available to elaborate on his statement. The lobby group is registered as a foreign agent in Washington for the Muslim World League, an organization based in Mecca that receives funding from the Saudi government.
Reem Daffa, vice-president and executive director of SAPRAC, accused the Trudeau government of politicking with an eye to this fall’s federal election.
“Canada elections are around the corner and the current government of Canada wants to score points over a family issue and humanitarian rights,” she said.
Dennis Horak, a former Canadian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, said he’s a bit surprised that the Saudi government has said nothing about Ms. al-Qunun’s asylum claim.
But he said he thinks Riyadh has decided to stay mum for now because, after months of intense criticism over the killing of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, the kingdom has no wish to be drawn into another prolonged international debate about its conduct.
“They would probably like this to disappear,” Mr. Horak said. “It’s shone a light on the guardianship laws that they probably aren’t thrilled with.”
Under Saudi Arabia’s controversial male guardianship system, every Saudi woman is assigned a male relative – often her father or husband but sometimes an uncle, brother or even a son – whose approval is needed if she is to marry, obtain a passport or travel abroad.
Thomas Juneau, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, said the Saudis are likely very concerned about trying to limit further criticism from the U.S. Congress. In December, the U.S. Senate delivered a rare double rebuke to U.S. President Donald Trump – one of Saudi Arabia’s few defenders today – voting to end U.S. military support for the war in Yemen and blaming Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the killing of Mr. Khashoggi. The resolution has yet to pass the U.S. House of Representatives.
“This is an important case of how Saudi Arabia adapts to the post-Khashoggi era, where there has been unprecedented criticism of Saudi Arabia in Congress and in Western media in general,” Prof. Juneau said.