Mohammed bin Salman. Photo: Mohammed Elshamy/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

In recent days, Saudi Arabia has thrown a fit over Canada's call for the release of recently-jailed activist Samar Badawi, an outspoken champion of women’s rights.

Between the lines: By the standards of the old pantomime act in which Western governments criticize Saudi Arabia’s appalling human rights record but more or less leave the energy-rich and strategically aligned kingdom alone, Canada’s statement hardly stands out. So why the furious response?

The latest...

  • Riyadh has kicked out the Canadian ambassador, recalled its own envoy, cancelled flights between the two countries, and put a freeze on new bilateral trade and investment.
  • A pro-government youth club went so far as to post (but then remove) an image that seemed to threaten Canada with a 9/11 style terrorist attack. 

The bigger picture...

First, there’s a domestic angle. Saudi Arabia’s young Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman is liberalizing parts of Saudi society as part of a broader bid to attract foreign investment and reduce his country’s dependence on oil revenues. 

  • But as part of that plan, he’s staged a power grab and crushed dissent to minimize challenges from rival princes or from conservative circles who hate what he’s up to. This, for example, explains why Prince Mohamed sees no contradiction in allowing women to drive while also arresting the women who have campaigned for allowing women to drive. 
  • By lashing out at Canada – a country big enough to matter, but small enough not to risk any serious fallout – he is sending a signal: external criticism is now just as off-limits as internal criticism. 

Second, there’s an external angle: the Trump effect. Just to be clear, the US has never – under any administration -- really put the screws to Saudi Arabia (or any other Sunni Arab allies) over human rights. But no modern US President has been as unapologetically uninterested in human rights issues as Donald Trump. 

  • At the same time, Trump has signaled he is firmly in Saudi Arabia’s corner when it comes to the Kingdom’s key foreign policy objective, which is to crush Iran. Where Obama’s embrace of the Arab Spring and the Islamic Republic raised fears in Riyadh, Trump has set the House of Saud at ease. 

What to watch: Will Trump intervene on behalf of “very weak and dishonest” Justin Trudeau? Doubtful. And while Ottawa and Riyadh will probably eventually work this all out, other authoritarians will surely take notice that on Trump’s watch there’s room to be tougher at home and pricklier abroad.

Sign up for Signal, a twice-weekly newsletter from GZERO Media, a Eurasia Group company, and follow @saosasha on Twitter.

Go deeper

Updated 22 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 6:15 p.m. EST: 32,062,182 — Total deaths: 979,701 — Total recoveries: 22,057,268Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 6:15 p.m EST: 6,967,103 — Total deaths: 202,558 — Total recoveries: 2,670,256 — Total tests: 97,459,742Map.
  3. Health: Cases are surging again in 22 states — New York will conduct its own review of coronavirus vaccine.
  4. Business: America is closing out its strongest quarter of economic growth.
  5. Technology: 2020 tech solutions may be sapping our resolve to beat the pandemic.
  6. Sports: Here's what college basketball will look like this season.
  7. Science: During COVID-19 shutdown, a common sparrow changed its song.
2 hours ago - Podcasts

The child care tax on America's economy

Child care in the U.S. is in crisis, which makes it much harder for the American economy to recover — as providers struggle to stay in business and parents wrestle with work.

Axios Re:Cap digs into the problems and what can be done to solve them, with Vox senior reporter Anna North.

Viral load is a puzzle in COVID-19

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

How sick a person gets from a virus can depend on how much of the pathogen that person was exposed to and how much virus is replicating in their body — questions that are still open for the novel coronavirus.

Why it matters: As people try to balance resuming parts of their daily lives with controlling their risk of COVID-19, understanding the role of viral load could help tailor public health measures and patient care.

Get Axios AM in your inbox

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!