‘I’m in shock:’ The first 24 hours of the Saudi-Canada tweet feud left Canadians reeling

‘I’m in shock:’ The first 24 hours of the Saudi-Canada tweet feud left Canadians reeling
As Saudi Arabia launched an unprecedented attack against Canadian interests in response to a tweet calling for the release of detained women’s rights activists including Samar Badawi , diplomats and foreign service officials were left scrambling and trying to confirm for themselves the media reports that the Canadian ambassador to the kingdom had been declared persona non grata.

Those efforts included attempts to rally allies at the United Nations to pressure the Saudis into releasing the activists and one-on-one calls between Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and her Saudi counterpart.

As well, there were requests for a joint diplomatic meeting with senior Saudi foreign ministry officials from Canada and the ambassadors from Australia, Switzerland and Norway that appears to have gone unanswered by the Saudis.

Following a second wave of arrests in late July 2018, the Canadian embassy in Riyadh recommended the time had come to issue a tweet or public statement.

Other officials appeared to agree, noting “a tweet is warranted.”

On Aug. 2, Freeland tweeted calling for the release of Samar Badawi, the women’s rights activist who has ties to Canada through her brother, Raif.

On Aug. 3, the Global Affairs Canada account followed suit.

But it was the tweet posted in Arabic from the Canadian embassy in Riyadh that sparked the backlash within a day.

Just over 12 hours after the tweet in Arabic was posted, an individual whose name is redacted sent an email at 6:10 p.m., saying they had received a phone call expressing “concerns” earlier that morning from Adel Al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister.

“I told him that while I was on holiday and hadn’t yet seen the specific tweet, our comments, statements and tweets on this subject in the recent past have reflected Canada’s escalating concerns,” the email reads.

“The tweet I said was not the Embassy acting on its own but in line with Canada’s views and concerns and any change was unlikely. I have now seen the tweet and don’t think it says anything either in language or tone that we haven’t said before.”

That characterization stands in contrast to comments made two months later by Horak following his expulsion.

In an interview with Reuters in October, Horak said the tweet was a “serious overreaction” and “went too far.”

“It was a situation that didn’t need to occur … to sort of yell from the sidelines I don’t think is effective,” Horak said in that interview.

However, it was not possible to tell from the documents behind that reporting whether that was the intent.

Starting at around 6 p.m. on Aug. 5, roughly 14 hours after the embassy tweet, officials were scrambling.

“It has escalated,” reads one in a flurry of back and forth notes as officials tried to make sense of whether reports emerging in the media that Saudi Arabia was expelling Horak were actually happening.

“The whole thing is surreal,” one email reads.

“It’s starting to look like this may be for real,” another wrote shortly after 7 p.m.

At 7:11 p.m., another email contained in the documents released this week said that based on the discussion in the phone call with the Saudi foreign minister on the morning of Aug. 5, “there was no suggestion at the time of further action forthcoming.”

“Hi all, I’m in shock [redacted]. A bit sad we learn it on the news. Is this common?”

No diplomatic note had been received notifying Canadian officials of the expulsion or the retaliation that was coming.

Hours later, in the early morning of Aug. 6, threats started rolling in.

“Will you be able to help us liaise with Twitter?” one email that appears to be from the embassy in Riyadh reads.

“It looks like we’re getting some threats – I’ll have one of our staff translate the ones we’re concerned about, but if you could flag those to Twitter (or let us know who can) we would appreciate it.”

Staff members waking up at the embassy were left “unsettled,” the documents suggest, and by the early afternoon on Aug. 6, questions were rolling in about how the ban on new investment promised by the kingdom would hit Canada.

“Since the diplomatic note states that any ‘new’ trade and investment initiatives will be put on hold, it remains to be seen how much this will impact the overall bilateral commercial relationship,” the documents reads before pointing to “multi-billion-dollar existing contracts with Canadian suppliers of machines, technologies and services such as [redacted].”

Trade staff, it goes on to note, “are concerned.”

At the same time, Canadian officials in Riyadh were holding meetings with “likeminded” deputy heads of other missions to assess support.

But by that evening, it was a done deal: Horak was out, and he knew it.

“As you all now know our posting to Saudi Arabia has come to an unexpected early end,” he wrote in what is described in the subject line as a goodbye email.

“It’s a shame that it has to come to an end like this … despite the way it ended I think we were able to do a lot of good things together. While the next little while will be more difficult given the current tensions, I have no doubt at all that you are up to the challenge. The saddest part in all of this is that [redacted] will not have the chance to say a proper good-bye.”
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