Saudi education ministry: Plan already in action to transfer students from Canada

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The posts came as Saudi Arabia ordered Canada's ambassador to leave the country and froze all new trade and investment on Sunday.

The dispute appears to have been sparked by tweets from Canadian diplomats, including one from Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, who said she was "very alarmed" by news of the arrest of Samar Badawi, the sister of prominent activist and writer Raif Badawi.

Canada's decrying the arrest of two female activists in Saudi Arabia clearly rubbed that country the wrong way.

Saudi Arabia has denounced the tweets as "blatant interference in the country's domestic affairs", as well as a "major, unacceptable affront to the kingdom's laws and judicial process".

In recent months Saudi Arabia has lifted a ban on women driving, but it has also arrested activists, including more than a dozen high-profile campaigners for women's rights.

Riyadh has also stopped all medical treatment programmes in Canada and is co-ordinating for the transfer of all Saudi patients from Canadian hospitals to other hospitals outside Canada, the Saudi press agency reported early on Wednesday.

Amnesty International noted Ms Badawi has been repeatedly targeted and interrogated by Saudi security forces for her human rights activist.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert avoided taking a side in the dispute.

"He was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison, he received 50 lashes in 2015 and he could receive others, but he hasn't", she said. "Canada will always stand up for human rights in Canada and around the world, and women's rights are human rights".

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Thomas Juneau, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa, said because the statement Sunday from Saudi Arabia specified that new trade deals will freeze, it is hard to determine what the economic impact will be.

"Canada stands together with the Badawi family in this hard time, and we continue to strongly call for the release of both Raif and Samar Badawi", Freeland tweeted.

Guido Steinberg, a Middle East expert at the German Institute for global and Security Affairs, believes there are two reasons why Saudi Arabia has reacted so harshly to the statements from the Canadian Foreign Ministry.

Global students pay 3 1/2 times the amount domestic students do to attend UNBC, which Weeks said is about middle of the pack among Canadian universities.

More than 7,000 students from Saudi Arabia are enrolled in university programmes in Canada, according to Harbash, head of the education ministry's scholarship programme. Her brother's wife, Ensaf Haidar, lives in Canada and recently became a Canadian citizen. These are just a few diplomatic sanctions Saudi Arabia has imposed on Canada in the wake of a tweet over jailed Saudi activists by Canadian officials.

Canada's largest refinery in Saint John, N.B., owned by Irving Oil, relies on Saudi Arabia for almost 40 per cent of its crude supply, according 2018 statistics from the National Energy Board.

Canada's relationship with Saudi Arabia has been cordial in the past, which has sometimes stoked controversy at home.

How did Saudi Arabia react?

It could also have an impact on Canadian oil imports: Canada imports nine per cent of its crude oil from Saudi Arabia, much of which goes to the Atlantic provinces.