Saudi Arabia has canceled the scholarships of 16,000 of its students studying in Canada, also ordering them to leave the country and find academic programs elsewhere.
It’s the latest in a war of words between the Saudi government and Canada over human rights, a dispute that began with a tweet Thursday from Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland.
According to a report out of Riyadh from Saudi-owned media outlet Al Arabiya, “training, scholarships and fellowships” for Saudi students in Canada are being shelved.
“I’m concerned about those students, but we still need to stand by our position that we support human rights in the world,” Bessma Momani, an expert on Middle East issues and a political science professor at the University of Waterloo, said in an interview Monday.
“I don’t think, understanding Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy, that they’re going to climb down from this, so we’re at an impasse.”
In a tweet Monday, Momani said in part that the affected Saudi students are now “scrambling with what to do with their lives. Unjust!”
Many of those students attending Canadian colleges and universities are here through the King Abdullah scholarship program, which covers their tuition, flights and accommodations, as well as a stipend for living expenses, Momani explained.
A smaller cohort consists of Saudi doctors who are here for specialization training administered by the Royal College of Physicians of Surgeons of Canada. Their costs are also covered by the Saudi Arabian government.
Momani says the doctors, who have in the past returned to their own country to practice, work in 15 Canadian hospitals and serve about 20,000 Canadian patients.
The Saudi students aren’t just in large Canadian cities, but smaller towns as well, so their departures will have economic repercussions on some communities, Momani predicts.
Momani said most of the students are out of Canada on summer break, likely back with family in Saudi Arabia.
“They’re supposed to be here in three weeks to start school, so it’s devastating when you think of it that way,” she said.
She says the Saudi government is trying to make an “example out of Canada” by showing the world it doesn’t take comments critical of domestic Saudi affairs lightly, especially on human rights matters.