RIYADH/TORONTO • Saudi Arabia said it will continue to ratchet up pressure on Canada for criticising the recent arrests of women activists, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau upheld his stance on human rights.
The kingdom's foreign minister, Mr Adel Al-Jubeir, has said that the next wave of retaliatory steps could affect investment flows between the countries. Saudi Arabia's central bank and pension funds have already begun selling Canadian assets, according to people familiar with the matter.
A report on the asset sales in the Financial Times earlier on Wednesday triggered a brief sell-off in the Canadian currency. Canadian stocks and bonds were little changed.
"Canada knows what it needs to do," Mr Al-Jubeir told a news conference in Riyadh on Wednesday, saying there was no need for mediation in the dispute. "We don't accept interference in our affairs."
Canada will "remain firm" on human rights, Mr Trudeau told reporters in Montreal, adding that Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland had a "good, long" conversation with her Saudi counterpart on Tuesday and that Canada does not want poor relations with the kingdom. He declined to say whether he would apologise to the Saudi government.
Saudi Arabia's unusually severe response is the latest evidence that while touting himself as a champion for economic and social progress - including by letting women drive for the first time - Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will not accept any outside criticism or perceived challenges to his authority.
Under his watch, Saudi Arabia has implemented an increasingly aggressive foreign policy. In November, the kingdom recalled its ambassador to Germany and cut back commercial ties with some German companies after the then-foreign minister suggested the kingdom had orchestrated the surprise resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, a charge it denies.
"The fact that the Saudis have made similar noises about Germany is further evidence that they are just more willing to escalate with important trade and political partners than in the past," said Professor Gregory Gause, an international affairs and Saudi specialist at Texas A&M University.
In March 2015, Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador from Stockholm over criticism by the Swedish foreign minister of Riyadh's human rights record.
Since Ms Freeland called on Saudi Arabia to release rights activist Samar Badawi from prison on Aug 2, Saudi Arabia has expelled the Canadian ambassador, frozen new business deals, suspended flights to Toronto and ordered the return of thousands of students who are studying at Canadian schools.
The kingdom has also stopped medical treatment programmes in Canada and was working on transferring Saudi patients there to other countries.
The Saudi Grains Organisation, a state-run grains buyer, told traders it would no longer accept milling wheat or feed barley from Canada, according to people familiar with the matter.
So far this year, Canada has exported C$1.4 billion (S$1.46 billion) in merchandise goods to Saudi Arabia and imported C$2 billion, according to Statistics Canada data.
Canada's main imports from Saudi Arabia are oil, while its exports include armoured vehicles as part of a C$15 billion arms contract signed in 2014 with a unit of General Dynamics Corp.
Saudi investments in Canada include Manitoba-based grain trader G3, which was formed in 2015 after Saudi Agricultural & Livestock Investment and Bunge Ltd acquired a 50.1 per cent stake in the former Canadian Wheat Board for C$250 million.