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Students and educators caught in Saudi-Canadian row, with no instructions

Canadian educators have told The PIE News that government officials are yet to contact them amid a diplomatic spat between the country and Saudi Arabia, which escalated quickly and has included threats to remove all Saudi Arabian students currently studying in Canada.

Over 7,000 Saudi students are currently enrolled in Canadian institutions, and it is unknown if they can continue their studies. Photo: Jonathan Denney via Unsplash

There are 7,640 Saudi Arabian students in Canada at the last count

Despite widespread reports that the Kingdom is poised to withdraw King Abdullah Scholarships from Saudi students, and re-locate all Saudi students in the country, Sonja Knutson, director of internationalisation at Memorial University of Newfoundland told The PIE no official contact has yet been made.

“So far, Canadian universities have not been contacted officially by either the Saudi or the Canadian government – but we do anticipate this will occur,” she said via email.

“The situation is very fluid, with new information coming in every hour”

However, Saudi students are reporting messages sent from the embassy in Ottawa.

“Saudi students have alerted us they are receiving notices (in Arabic) from the Saudi staff in Ottawa to return home as soon as the Spring semester is over (generally mid-August),” Knutson confirmed.

The tension arose from an online comment made by Canadian foreign minister Chrystia Freedland, who criticised Riyadh’s decision to arrest Samar Badawi, sister of imprisoned human rights activist and blogger Raif Badawi.

Raif Badawi’s wife Ensaf Haidar is a dual Saudi-Canadian citizen.

The decision to remove students was not the first step taken by the Kingdom. First, Riyadh expelled Canadian ambassador Dennis Horak, before freezing trade and investment deals thought to be worth billions of dollars, and state airline Saudia has said it will suspend all flights to Toronto from Monday.

The Saudi ministry of foreign affairs was quoted in Saudi media as saying the Canadian comments were an “affront” which called for a “sharp response”.

“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has never accepted any interference in its domestic affairs by – or orders from – any country,” it continued.

Later, education ministry official Jassem al-Harbash told Saudi media relocation plans for students were being prepared.

“The US and UK will get the lion’s share, given their size and the education opportunities there, and we’ve begun coordinating with the missions there,” al-Harbash said.

“Canadian universities have not been contacted officially by either government”

The PIE News has asked the Saudi Arabian education ministry for details of any arrangement that would facilitate this movement of students to countries allied to Canada, but did not receive a response by the time of publication.

What is clear, however, is that Canadian institutions have been quick to respond, even if possibilities to take action are limited.

“We are working with impacted students on a case by case basis. Some, for example, are nearing the end of doctoral programs. We are doing what we can to support all Saudi students as we await clear directions from the Saudi Bureau,” Knutson informed The PIE.

“Universities and colleges across Canada are communicating with each other as we try to determine how we can best help the students,” she added.

“However at this time the situation is very fluid, with new information coming in every hour.”

Gabriela Facchini, manager of international business development and partnerships at Sheridan College in Ontario added that “drastic” actions will not only affect students’ studies, but affect their lives in the long-term too.

“It is an unfortunate situation that escalated too quickly and KSA took drastic actions without considering more diplomatic solutions. Many students will be affected, their studies and lives interrupted and possibly their futures uncertain as a result,” she told The PIE News.

Facchini added that any students who decide to leave Canada will be treated exactly like any student who decided to cancel their attendance.

“At this point, students would be eligible for a refund of fees for semesters not yet started, less the administrative fee for cancellation, which can range from $1500-3500.  If students leave, we would treat them like any other student who cancels their program,” she said.

The situation does not only affect Saudi students, of course, and both Knutsson and the Canadian Bureau for International Education have confirmed educators and officials are markedly concerned by the development.

“It is an unfortunate situation that escalated too quickly”

“We are hearing from Canadian faculty who are very concerned about the impact on students and asking for support. We are all very concerned about how vulnerable the Saudi students are at the moment – worried for their own careers and futures, and trying to figure out how to comply with their own government directives,” Knutson said.

A spokesperson from CBIE confirmed the organisation is “monitoring the situation”.

“CBIE is concerned about the welfare of Saudi students in Canada.  We are monitoring the situation and are in contact with our member institutions,” they relayed.

In addition, Colleges and Institutes Canada confirmed they had been in contact with Global Affairs Canada, in an email sent to members.

“We are assessing the situation and are in touch with Global Affairs Canada whose officials will be meeting with KSA officials later this week to explore where de-escalation might be possible,” Alain Roy, vice president of CiCAN wrote.

According to the latest CBIE statistics, there are 7,640 Saudi Arabian students in Canada. However, this has dropped significantly since 2013 – when 13,840 study visas were granted to the Kingdom’s citizens – and is a consistently falling figure. The drop was 34% between the two cohorts entering Canada in 2015 and 2017.

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