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Saudi Arabia expels Canadian ambassador over criticism of arrests

Riyadh also recalls its envoy and suspends trade deals after Canada's foreign ministry denounced jailing of activists.

The Saudi state airline, Saudia

Saudi Arabia's state airline has said it is suspending flights to and from Toronto, the latest in a series of measures announced by the kingdom in its diplomatic dispute with Canada.

The move on Monday came hours after Riyadh expelled Canada's ambassador over alleged interference in Saudi domestic affairs after Ottawa's foreign ministry rebuked Riyadh for jailing human rights activists.

Canadian Ambassador Dennis Horak was given 24 hours to leave the country, the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported.

The kingdom also froze new trade and investment with Canada worth billions of dollars andrecalled its envoy to the country.

Saudi state television later reported that the Education Ministry was coming up with an "urgent plan" to move thousands of Saudi scholarship students out of Canadian schools to take classes in other countries.

The Saudi state airline, Saudia, meanwhile said in a statement on its official Twitter account that it would suspend all flights to Toronto starting next Monday, August 13.

The announcements came days after Canada called for the immediate release of rights campaigners detained during a recent wave of arrests in Saudi Arabia, including relatives of naturalised Canadian citizens.

The ministry of foreign affairs said Canada's actions were an "affront" that required a "sharp response".

"The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has never accepted any interference in its domestic affairs by - or orders from - any country," SPA quoted the ministry as saying.

'Unrelenting crackdown'

In her first public response to Saudi Arabia's actions, Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said on Monday: "Let me be very clear ... Canada will always stand up for human rights in Canada and around the world, and women's rights are human rights."

Last week, Canada's ministry of foreign affairs said in a tweet it was "gravely concerned" about the detention of rights activists in the kingdom, including Samar Badawi.

Samar is the sister of Raif Badawi, a prominent human rights campaigner sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2014 on charges of insulting Islam. His wife and children are naturalised Canadian citizens.

The ministry's statement came a day after Freeland called for both members of the Badawi family to be released.

"Canada stands together with the Badawi family in this difficult time," Freeland said.

Saudi authorities arrested Samar Badawi and fellow activist Nassima al-Sadah last month.

Both campaigned for women's right to drive, which was granted by the Saudi government when it ended a decades-old ban in June, as well as the abolishment of the male guardianship system.

More than a dozen female activists have been targeted by Saudi authorities since May, in what Human Rights Watch described as an "unrelenting crackdown on the women's rights movement".

Riyadh's response to Ottawa's criticism marked a "significant interruption" in relations between the two countries, Hassan Yari, a professor of international relations at Sultan Qaboos University in Oman, said.

"This [rift] is going to affect trade and exchange between Canada and Saudi Arabia," Yari said.

Bilateral trade last year totalled about $4bn and more than 15,000 Saudi students attend Canadian universities. 

A significant portion of two-way trade is based on Canada's export of military vehicles armed with high-powered weaponry, a deal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government has received much criticism for making because of Saudi's human rights record.


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