OTTAWA — Canada and Saudi Arabia are normalizing diplomatic relations and appointing ambassadors five years after the Liberal government's public comments on women's rights led Riyadh to expel the top Canadian envoy.
In 2018, Global Affairs Canada tweeted that it wanted Saudi Arabia to "immediately release" human-rights activists who had been detained.
Both countries maintained their embassies, but Saudi Arabia downgraded its presence in Ottawa and halted trade talks with Canada, saying it was unacceptable for the Canadians to weigh in on Saudi Arabia's justice system.
Global Affairs Canada said in a statement Wednesday that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman agreed during a chat last November that they wanted to restore diplomatic relations.
The department said this discussion took place on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Bangkok.
At the time, reporters noted Trudeau had attended a lunch with leaders including Prince Mohammed, who is Saudi Arabia's prime minister. That day, Trudeau played down the notion that Ottawa was seeking to restore ties.
"When we're in these summits, we attend a wide range of sessions with many people around the table, and it's extremely important that Canadians can know that regardless of who's around the table, regardless of whom we're speaking to, we always stand up clearly for human rights," Trudeau said at a Nov. 18 press conference.
Now, the department says the two countries are putting their ties back to where they were in five years ago "on the basis of mutual respect and common interests."
Dennis Horak, the Canadian ambassador who was expelled during the 2018 spat, said in an interview that Ottawa needs to seize on the momentum to build closer ties with Saudi Arabia, since it's a key ally with an "increasingly prominent role" in countries from Syria to Yemen.
"Re-establishing ambassadorial relations is a good first step, but it needs to be accompanied by a sustained engagement at senior levels," Horak told The Canadian Press.
He said his ouster partly stemmed from Canada not having connections with senior Saudi leadership through ministerial visits. This led Canada to be seen as expendable, he said.
"If you want to get your point of view heard, whether it's in relation to commercial issues or human rights, you need to engage person-to-person," said Horak.
"That's the way to cement the relationship and make our views known in a way that it reaches the people that need to hear it — as opposed to relying solely on social media."
The 2018 rift led Saudi Arabia to send fewer students to Canada, after years of having a significant footprint in university classrooms and teaching hospitals.
Ottawa has thanked Saudi Arabia for its help in resettling Canadians fleeing Sudan after an outbreak of brazen violence in that country last month.
The country has seen a wave of liberalization under the de facto rule of Prince Mohammed, including the introduction of some new freedoms for women, though Human Rights Watch says the country still represses civil society and imprisons peaceful dissidents.
Saudi Arabia has denied findings by U.S. intelligence agencies that the leader approved the 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at a Saudi consulate in Turkey, which occurred months after the kingdom's spat with Canada.
Before the spat, the Liberal government temporarily paused arm sales to Saudi Arabia over reports the country's Canadian-made light armoured vehicles were being used in a bloody conflict in Yemen.
NDP foreign-affairs critic Heather McPherson said in a statement that the new envoy must raise the Yemen conflict.
"Saudi Arabia continues to have one of the worst human-rights records in the world. The ambassador’s first priority must be raising these human-rights abuses, as the Canadian government has failed to show leadership on this with Saudi Arabia over decades."
Canada's new ambassador will be Jean-Philippe Linteau, a career diplomat who was most recently consul general in Dubai.
The Saudi embassy in Ottawa did not respond Wednesday to a question about who the country's new ambassador to Canada will be.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 24, 2023.
Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press