Over 8,000 international students studying in Canada have been left reeling following a decision by the Saudi Arabian government to pull students from Canadian universities.
A diplomatic spat between Canada and Saudi Arabia broke out weeks ago, when Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland tweeted that she is “very alarmed” over the abrupt incarceration of Samar Badawi — a women’s rights activist in Saudi Arabia who has family living in Canada — and a day later, the official Twitter account for Global Affairs Canada tweeted that Canada “is gravely concerned about additional arrests of civil society and women’s rights activists in #SaudiArabia, including Samar Badawi.”
Saudi Arabia quickly retaliated, announcing it was demanding that its Canadian ambassador leave, summoning the ambassador of Saudi Arabia to Canada back to Saudia Arabia, freezing “all new trade and investment transactions” between the two countries — and pulling its students from Canadian post-secondary institutions.
Much of this dispute continued over Twitter, with Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry tweeting that “the Canadian position is a grave and unacceptable violation of the Kingdom’s laws and procedures.”
As of fall 2017, there were 48 Saudi students studying at the U of M.
While the Manitoban reached out to several students, and the U of M Saudi Students’ Association, no students agreed to speak on the record.
Some students who have spoken out anonymously elsewhere have noted that they had been instructed by the Saudi government not to speak with media.
The U of M has put out an official statement through UM Today, its online communications arm, saying it is “working with the Government of Canada, and universities across the country, to ensure a co-ordinated response to this situation” and that more information will be provided as it comes.
Many Saudi students studying in Canada do so under the King Abdullah Scholarship Program, which provides Saudi students studying abroad with funding that includes full health insurance, coverage of tuition, coverage of language training and a monthly stipend for living expenses.
Students who were studying under this scholarship will find their funds frozen mere weeks before the beginning of the new school year.
Despite the quick escalation of the Canada-Saudi Arabia dispute, Saudi Arabia’s energy minister has already given assurance that the Twitter argument will not affect Saudi oil sales to Canada. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said that while he will continue to press Saudi Arabia on its human rights violations, the country was also “making progress in the area of human rights.”
This may be in reference to the recent lifting of the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia.
Badawi, who was arrested for speaking out against the oppression of women under Saudi Arabian law, remains incarcerated.
There has also been no comment from either party so far on the status of the 2014 $15 billion arms deal from the former Conservative government, upheld by Trudeau, that would provide Saudi Arabia with Canadian-made armoured vehicles.