LONDON—The consequences of a diplomatic rift between Riyadh and Ottawa are taking effect on Canadian university campuses, as some Saudi students are obeying a Saudi order to depart the country while others are organizing themselves in search of a reprieve.
The move has left many students upset and confused about how to continue their studies, and Saudi medical graduates are having to abruptly abandon post-graduation training posts in which they also treat patients, leaving Canadian hospitals in the lurch.
Analysts have meanwhile warned that this kind of diplomacy could become the new standard in Saudi foreign policy when dealing with criticism from Western countries. This could potentially affect other countries with educational links to the kingdom, long known for well-subsidized students that top-ranked Western universities compete for.
The row couldn’t have come at a worse time for the students, says David Butter, an associate fellow in the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, an independent research group in London.
“There’s a problem here because it’s right at the start of the college term and the Saudi bureaucracy goes to sleep at this time of the year because of the Hajj and Eid holiday,” says Butter.
The diplomatic row began on August 2, when the Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland publicly criticized Saudi Arabia’s human rights record on Twitter.
The Saudi government responded four days later by expelling the Canadian ambassador to the kingdom. On the same day, the Saudi government issued an official statement via Twitter to tell all Saudi students in Canada to leave the country and make their way home within 30 days. Many of these students had received Saudi government funding and stipends to study in Canada. Other Saudi expats in Canada are not yet legally obliged to leave, according to one global consulting company.
Along with cutting educational connections, the Saudi government announced a boycott of Canadian wheat imports, the cancelation of Toronto-bound flights on Saudia, the kingdom’s national airline, and a halt on any new trade or investment between the two countries.
“You see all sorts of examples of this kind of erratic behaviour from Saudi Arabia,” says Butter. “Take the action against Qatar, for example. It’s one thing after another.”
“Even if it does cause trouble for Saudi students in Canada, then it’s tough luck. That’s how the Saudi government sees it,” says Butter.
Saudi officials have stated that they view Canada as trying to interfere with Saudi internal affairs, and some Saudi youth have supported that view. Many Saudi students in Canada, however, are struggling to adjust to the news.
“I left Saudi Arabia five years ago to do my graduate studies in Canada and I was sponsored by the Saudi government,” says a student at Carleton University who wishes to be known only by his first name, Mohamed. “I’m working on the final touches on my doctoral thesis and I have two months until my Ph.D. defense. Now I have to go back to Saudi Arabia. I can’t believe it. It’s a nightmare.”
In a written statement, Larissa Bezo, the interim president of the Canadian Bureau for International Education, which seeks to promote international education in Canada, voiced her concern for the students.
“They should be permitted to pursue their studies in Canada as planned where they remain welcome,” she wrote.
A group of Saudi students agree with Bezo’s comments and have organized themselves anonymously as the “Coordination Committee,” which in a statement has called for the Saudi government to review its position.
“We kindly urge the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, and the Crown Prince to instruct the government to immediately reverse its decision,” reads the statement.
But some students have already departed—The Toronto Globe and Mail reported on August 13 that some Saudi medical graduates who were expected to continue their training at Canadian hospitals had since left their posts.
The Saudi government used to pay around $76,000 for each medical trainee in Canadian hospitals, which means the trainees provided medical care at no cost to Canadian taxpayers.
An unnamed Saudi official is reported to have told the Canadian newspaper that there are more than 15,000 Saudi students in Canada with scholarships funded by Riyadh. The official also said that the Saudi students will be transferred to universities in other countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States.
But some have expressed doubt that these transfers can be organized in time for the approaching academic year. “These students are pretty much stranded at this point,” says Butter.
Bandar, another Saudi student at Carleton University who is preparing to leave, fears the diplomatic incident could hurt his prospects as he looks for a place elsewhere. “The diplomatic conflict between the two countries will make professors in American, Western and Japanese universities think 1,000 times before accepting Saudi students in the future,” he says.
The government funding that Saudi students bring with them makes them some of the most coveted international students. Other countries will be watching and taking note of what is happening between Canada and Saudi Arabia, says Butter.
“There’s the issue of balancing the right to say things against the Saudi government with the revenues gained from Saudi foreign students.”
Tarek Abd El-Galil contributed reporting to this article.