Saudi Arabia has reversed key parts of a policy that forced thousands of international students to leave Canada just before resuming their studies this fall.
Scholarships are being reinstated for all graduate students and all undergraduate students in their final year of study at Canadian universities.
The Saudi Ministry of Education ordered more than 14,000 state-supported students to leave Canada at the end of the summer term in retaliation for a tweet by Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland that called for the release of two human rights activists imprisoned in the Mideast kingdom. The tweet also prompted Saudi Arabia to expel the Canadian ambassador and withdraw its envoy from Ottawa.
Most Saudi students in Canada rely on scholarships from the Saudi Arabia Cultural Bureau for tuition and living expenses. The Bureau ended those scholarships in early August. It later softened the policy to allow 1,000 medical trainees to stay in Canada until they found placements elsewhere, but repeated that all other students had to leave by Sept. 22.
That rule has now changed.
The Saudi Arabia Cultural Bureau did not respond to a request for comment, but multiple sources confirmed the new policy.
Larissa Bezo, Interim President and CEO of the Canadian Bureau for International Education, welcomed the change.
“As the national voice of international education in Canada, we are deeply concerned for the well-being of all international students including those from Saudi Arabia,” she said. “We see this decision by the Saudi Ministry of Education as a welcome step towards ensuring that all Saudi students are able to continue their studies in Canada as planned where they remain welcome at institutions across the country.”
A bulletin published by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada confirms that Saudi Arabia restored scholarships for graduate students in all academic disciplines, and for undergraduate students who are scheduled to graduate within one year. The new policy does not appear to include students who were in language programs or earlier years of undergraduate programs.
Universities Canada sent a bulletin in October explaining the new policy to its members.
“Universities Canada has been informed by the Saudi Cultural Bureau that a decision has been made whereby many Saudi scholarship students, currently on ‘academic hold’ or ‘leave of absence’ from their Canadian studies, will be eligible to rejoin their academic programs, beginning either in the fall or winter term,” it reads.
“The Saudi Cultural Bureau has indicated that all current Saudi graduate students, as well as undergraduate students in their final year, are being individually contacted by telephone . . . and will be advised to apply to their office through the ‘Student Gate’ to request reactivation of their scholarships.”
According to Universities Canada, about 3,000 undergraduate students were affected by the original ban. It’s unclear how many of those students can return under the new rules, or how many will choose to do so.