Saudi Students Seek Asylum


Ongoing diplomatic feud sparks unrest

The ongoing political conflict between Saudi Arabia and Canada has taken another victim outside the financial sector – university students. Several from Saudi Arabia have requested asylum in order to remain in Canada for the duration of their studies; according to the CBC, there are at least 20 Saudi students attempting to obtain asylum. Many fear they will be arrested upon their return, given their critique of the Saudi government on social media during their tenure abroad. The requests come after tension between the Canadian-Saudi governments escalated in the beginning of August, due to a twitter spat initiated by the Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Chrystia Freeland. In a tweet, Freeland condemned the Saudi government for jailing sibling activists Samar and Raif Badawi; Raif was arrested in 2012 on charges of “insulting Islam through electronic channels” and jailed in 2013. Samar was initially jailed for six months in 2010 due to a missed court date relating to a feud with her father over marriage rights. According to Amnesty International, she was arrested and briefly detained in 2016, although the Saudi Government denies her arrest. Most recently, Samar was arrested on July 30th, eliciting the aforementioned response from Minister Freeland.  

“Very alarmed to learn that Samar Badawi, Raif Badawi’s sister, has been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia. Canada stands together with the Badawi family in this difficult time, and we continue to strongly call for the release of both Raif and Samar Badawi.”

  This initial call to action was followed by a second tweet by Freeland one day later:

“Canada is gravely concerned about additional arrests of civil society and women’s rights activists in #SaudiArabia, including Samar Badawi. We urge the Saudi authorities to immediately release them and all other peaceful #humanrights activists.”

In response, the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a press release condemning Canada for meddling in internal affairs and publishing comments that were “not based in any accurate or true information”. In the same press release, the Saudis recalled their ambassador, and declared the Canadian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Dennis Horak, a Persona-Non-Grata, giving him 24 hours to leave the country. The Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs also announced a hold on all new business and investment transactions with Canada. 

This initial cessation of diplomacy was followed by a sell-off of all Canadian assets by the Saudi central bank, regardless of whether this resulted in a net loss to the Saudis. Oil trade between the two countries is one of the only sectors which has retained status quo. The widespread halt of trade has been taken by many as a sign from Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman that the international community should abstain from meddling in Saudi Arabia’s internal affairs; the nation is clearly comfortable brandishing its’ political and financial capital in order to deter others from towing the Canadian line. 

While diplomatic relations between the two countries remain in limbo, the Saudi students who remain in Canada are left with few options. The Saudi Arabian government has granted an exception to 1 000 medical trainees who have been authorized to stay in Canada until “alternative assignments can be arranged”; all other students have been ordered to return home or continue their schooling in other countries. Although the students are allowed to stay in Canada until their visas expire, many are studying under the King Abdullah Scholarship Program. The Saudi government announced in early August that it would be revoking scholarship funding for students who remain in Canada, making it financially unfeasible to remain.