Relations between Canada and Saudi Arabia have nosedived as both countries try to assert themselves in a changing international climate.

The spat between Saudi Arabia and Canada seemed, at first, an inexplicable rift. Saudi behaviour, in expelling the Canadian ambassador after a Canadian diplomatic Twitter account judiciously criticised the Kingdom’s record on human rights, is widely perceived to be unjustified, unreasonable and nonsensical. But those adjectives are less uncommon in diplomacy these days than one might expect and hope.

This confrontation looked, at least initially, to be yet another odd event of its kind – an occurrence of the sort that frequently appears on the diplomatic theatre nations stage for the benefit of international and domestic onlookers.

The Saudi state declared Canada’s emissary a persona non grata, withdrew their own ambassador, instructed Saudi students at Canada’s universities and patients in its hospitals to return home, and began to obstruct trade between the two countries – all that was one thing. Its dimensions were known if not commonly applied. It could be factored into models of international diplomacy with ease if not admiration.

What elevated a strange incident to the level of the truly bizarre was another tweet, this one from an official Saudi account. The tweet’s text was proverbial and hinted at the undesirability of incurring unintended consequences; the infographic attached to the tweet appeared to dispense with hinting.

The image contained an airliner and a tall building – the CN tower – a familiar piece of the Toronto skyline. For those who wished to see, the airliner seemed almost as though it was about to strike the skyscraper. Parallels with the terror attacks on the United States in September 2001 were not difficult to draw, and, gleefully, long-term opponents of the kingdom reminded everyone else that many of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi.

That infographic was eventually deleted, but not before spawning near-hysteria.

The conclusion that the infographic was a terrible mistake – part idiot miscalculation, part sinister foolishness – was not hard to sustain. That conclusion was strengthened by the apology offered by the cyber kids apparently running the KSA infographic account, which had initially posted the ill-chosen image.

What was less easy to sustain was that the whole dispute was the product of a fit of anger on the Saudi part. The whole thing was framed as an instinctive and reflexive lashing out by the country’s leadership – especially the crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, who at 32, was accused of naivete and child like petulance – which brought predictably negative consequences.

It is true that the consequences of this imbroglio were negative, and that they were predictable. But though the leaders of democratic countries, nations that are not built on millions of barrels of oil, would have baulked at incurring such a cost in maintaining a row of this nature, the same rules do not apply to the kingdom.

The intention here may well be to test the boundaries of an international system where the rules are now increasingly being tested.  And in that, despite a backlash which has hurt the international perception of the Saudi state and united many nations in condemnation, the long-term consequences seem less than disastrous.

Despite its agents being in the right, and despite the fact that, in popular terms, Canada’s cause is seen as justified by people around the world, Canadian officials feel isolated. Though the Canadian prime minister maintains the country’s fundamental posture, he feels the need to promise ‘to engage’ with a country whose own commitment to engagement is less than concrete.

The United States has sat the row out, having its own petty reasons for disliking Canada and the country’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau; and just as in 2017, when American assent appears to have been canvassed before the beginning of the Saudi and UAE-led campaign to isolate Qatar, such things mean more than the low opinion of the rest of the world.

This does not mean that Saudi actions are not capricious and indefensible. That must be acknowledged. But to confuse the fundamental essence of an action with its consequences, and then to decide retroactively what its causes must be, is fallacious thinking. To suggest, as many people have, that this whole row can be traced back to impulsive instincts rather than tactics is a stretch and a step too far.

The Saudi response to legitimate Canadian criticism of its treatment of political reformers has done the kingdom’s image few favours; it has hardly increased its stock in the world’s foreign capitals, or in the estimation of many ordinary people worldwide, nor has it faced real sanction or incurred real consequence. Saudi Arabia’s American ally has stopped short of taking the kingdom’s side, but the White House has hardly given Canada its full support. In this way, what is still a Saudi misstep in public relations terms can begin to resemble a step forward.

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