INTERVIEW: Amb. Dennis Horak on Saudi Arabia / Canada relations

1) Ambassador Horak, you were sent back to Canada on a tweet. Is the medium the message?

Tweets are not an effective tool of diplomacy. “Twitterplomacy” (as I have come to call it) is PR aimed at supporters or the already converted. By their very nature and limited technical capabilities (140 characters) tweets lack the rigour and nuance that would normally be applied in crafting, the kind of longer, more thoughtful public statements that used to be a key tool in the diplomatic toolbox. The dispute with Saudi Arabia reflected these realities and deficiencies.

2) Is dispute inevitable between Canada and Saudi Arabia because of the constitutions both nations are built on?

Canada and Saudi Arabia do have very different world views; Canada is a liberal democracy, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a theocratic autocracy. Differences and disputes are, accordingly, indeed inevitable, especially on issues related to human rights and justice. But that doesn’t mean a meaningful and productive bilateral relationship is impossible. Canada has different perspectives with the vast majority of the countries of the world – there are a relatively small number of truly liberal democracies in the world. It is how you manage those differences that count. Dialogue and engagement are the key to managing any diplomatic relationship, including especially with countries with which we have profound political or philosophical differences. If you engage you have a better chance of having your voice and concerns heard.

Trade, certainly, is a factor in shaping how we respond or deal with these differences, especially with a country like China, but it shouldn’t be. We may not be able to change Saudi or Chinese behaviour on our own – Canada is relatively small – but we can have an impact on the ground or around the edges that can have an influence. Ghosting countries may be more satisfying for certain constituencies in Canada, but it does nothing to advance our interests or agenda.

3) What is there to gain or to lose for both nations in sustaining the impasse or moving towards reconciliation?

Nothing is to be gained by either side in sustaining the impasse, but I’m not sure either country much cares or cares enough to fix it. The relationship is not that important to either and the break served certain parochial interests in both KSA and Canada. For the Saudis, the “punishment” of Canada was a signal to other Western countries that the Saudis will not tolerate “interference in their internal affairs”. It was a warning. Continuing to freeze out Canada in the absence of an apology reinforces the message that there is a cost to crossing the Kingdom. For Canada the Saudi overreaction to a tweet allowed the Government to underscore its support for human rights/women’s rights and its willingness to pay the price. It was on-brand for the Government. Canada was standing on principle and would not back down. But the continued break actually undercuts Canada’s ability to have any impact on those values issues we profess to support (eg. We no longer have the ability to have thousands of Saudi students come to Canada to study. They go back as agents of change). We traded the ability to have an impact for the political satisfaction of being applauded for being seen to care.

4) What, in your view, would be the best way forward for the Canadian government?

Sustained, senior level, efforts to re-engage with the Saudi leadership would be the best way forward. No apology is needed or should be offered, regardless of what the Saudis are demanding. Other countries – Sweden and Germany in particular – ran into problems with the Saudis in the past and were able to find a way out – crafting ‘non-apology apologies” which gave both sides what they needed. But that came after considerable senior level interventions and required political will. While I do believe that Canada wants to get back to normal with Saudi Arabia, I don’t believe that it is willing to devote the kind of political attention needed to achieve it. There are many supporters outside Government (and likely elements within it) who are satisfied with a strained relationship with the Kingdom. It is short-sighted. Despite the current financial strains, KSA remains a regional power in a part of the world that does still matter (and which has a history of forcing itself on the global agenda). Additionally, despite the excesses of the Crown Prince (and there are many), the Kingdom has embarked on the most ambitious reform program in its history (which is real and meaningful) and Canada should be in a position to actively encourage and support these efforts (as we were) if we are really interested in actually improving the lives of Saudis (rather than just ticking values boxes in the most visible manner possible).



Share the article :

Do you want to respond to this piece?

Submit and article. Find out how, here:


In order to personalize your user experience, CDA Institute uses strictly necessary cookies and similar technologies to operate this site. See details here.