Saudi Arabia freezes ties, Canada defiant

Aziz El Yaakoubi and David Ljunggren
Saudi Arabia's sharp response to Canada shows the limits of reforms by Mohammed bin Salman

Canada has refused to back down in its defence of human rights after Saudi Arabia froze new trade and investment and expelled the Canadian ambassador in retaliation for Ottawa's call to free arrested Saudi civil society activists.

"Canada will always stand up for human rights in Canada and around the world, and women's rights are human rights," Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said in her first public response to Saudi Arabia's actions.

Riyadh on Sunday recalled its ambassador from Canada and gave the Canadian ambassador 24 hours to leave.

The Saudi government also banned new trade with Canada, although it was unclear if it would affect existing annual Saudi-Canadian trade of nearly $US4 billion ($A5.4 billion) and a $US13 billion defence contract.

The moves were a stern rebuke to Canada after the country on Friday expressed concern over the arrests of activists in Saudi Arabia, including prominent women's rights campaigner Samar Badawi, and called for their release.

Riyadh said that amounted to "a blatant interference in the Kingdom's domestic affairs, against basic international norms and all international protocols."

Saudi Arabia's sudden sharp response to criticism shows the limits of reforms by Saudi Arabia's 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who runs its day-to-day government.

He has launched a campaign of social and economic change, but has not eased the absolute monarchy's total ban on political activism.

In the fist comments by Washington since the dispute erupted, a State Department official said the US had asked Riyadh for details on the detention of activists.

On Monday, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir criticised Canada's calls to free arrested civil society activists as a position built on "misleading" information. The moves caught diplomats in Riyadh off guard.

The kingdom will suspend educational exchange programmes with Canada and move Saudi scholarship recipients to other countries. Saudi state airline Saudia said it was suspending flights to and from Toronto, Canada's largest city.

Neighbours and allies Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates said they stood with Riyadh, although they did not announce similar measures.