Why New Zealand hasn't spoken up for Canada in its face-off with Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia responded to Canada's criticism of its arrest of women's rights activists by sending a warning to Western countries: mind your own business. New Zealand hasn't spoken up in support of its ally, and a senior lecturer says there's a likely reason.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) told Newshub on Thursday the diplomatic spat between Canada and Saudi Arabia is concerning, and it's "encouraging both countries to find a way to move forward". 

New Zealand has a "long-standing trading relationship with Saudi Arabia," the ministry said, with exports in 2017 worth $575 million. New Zealand also hosts over 2000 Saudi students.

Is this the real reason New Zealand hasn't spoken up in support of Canada? 

Saudi Arabia's allies were quick to voice their support for the conservative Arab kingdom, with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and the Palestinian Authority publicly condemning Canada for interfering in another countries' sovereignty. 

Bahrain might be a small country, but it nevertheless took the courage to speak out in support of its ally Saudi Arabia. The two kingdoms share similar values, the same as Canada and New Zealand. So why hasn't New Zealand, or any other of Canada's Western allies, voiced support?

Since Saudi Arabia launched the dispute on Sunday over tweets sent last week by Canadian ambassador to Saudi Arabia Dennis Horak, they have recalled Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Canada, frozen new business and trade, and ordered Saudi citizens seeking medical care in Canada to go elsewhere. 

Canadian wheat and barley has also been blacklisted by Saudi Arabia, and the kingdom has ordered the asset managers of its central bank and pension funds to drop Canadian assets "no matter the cost", Global News reports

And while all of this drama has unfolded, none of Canada's allies have spoken up in support - not the United States, United Kingdom, Australia or New Zealand. 

The European Union said on Tuesday it is seeking details about the arrest of women's rights activists in Saudi Arabia, but have side-stepped the diplomatic dispute - and the US has done the same. 

The US described both Canada and Saudi Arabia as "friends" and "partners" of the US, with the State Department saying on Tuesday both countries need to resolve the issue "diplomatically". 

Considering the EU's strong position on human rights, you "would've thought that they would support Canada," Victoria University of Wellington's Professor Robert Ayson told Newshub. 

"Historically, you would've thought the United States would also support Canada on this, but the United States currently is led by [Donald] Trump who doesn't have much time for human rights and who has made the Saudi relationship a very important part of his approach to Middle East politics."

If the US had come to Canada's support - which it might've done under former president Barack Obama - then other liberal democracies such as New Zealand would feel safer to speak out, he explained. But right now, Canada's "waving in the breeze a bit". 

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern see the world similarly.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern see the world similarly. Photo credit: Getty

"Everybody's thinking about the impact of US tariffs, and that makes every non-US trade relationship that much more important," said Prof Ayson. He said there aren't many European countries or other liberal democracies that will risk abandoning their economic relationships with Saudi Arabia. 

"But at the same time, what does that mean for their approach to foreign policy values?" he said. 

In her first prime ministerial speech on foreign policy, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern emphasised the importance of "speaking up for what we believe in, standing up when our values are challenged, and working tirelessly to draw in partners with shared values". 

Doesn't that mean she should be speaking up against Saudi Arabia, since Canada's values - many of which New Zealand shares - are being attacked?

None of Canada's Five Eyes partners pictured here - the UK, Australia and New Zealand - have spoken out in support.
None of Canada's Five Eyes partners pictured here - the UK, Australia and New Zealand - have spoken out in support. Photo credit: File

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ms Ardern don't see the world identically, but they do see the world similarly, Prof Ayson says - so you'd think she would want to stand up for Canada and New Zealand's share values.  

Perhaps it's a case where values are important, but interests are more?

There is no evidence of what Saudi Arabia would do if New Zealand were to speak out, Prof Ayson says. The kingdom said it's taking out its citizens in Canada and sending them to countries with which it has good relations - and one of those countries includes New Zealand. 

Would that then change if New Zealand stood up and said something? 

New Zealand has a mission in Saudi Arabia's capital, Riyadh - so it is one of our most important hubs for engagement in the Middle East, says Prof Ayson. 

According to New Zealand Trade and Enterprise, last year Saudi Arabia was New Zealand's 17th largest trading partner. Exports to Saudi Arabia were half a billion dollars in 2016, and the kingdom is New Zealand's largest supplier of fertiliser and a significant supplier of crude oil.

Perhaps the Government, like other liberal democracies around the world, is simply too afraid of losing Saudi Arabia as a partner if it stands up for Canada.

But at what point should New Zealand say enough is enough? 

"It's an interesting test of the Prime Minister's values," says Prof Ayson.