The Saudi attack on Canada is a po­lit­i­cal gift to the Lib­er­als

The Globe and Mail (Alberta Edition) - - OPINION - DOUG SAUN­DERS OPINION

Though they would never say so out loud, on some level Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau and For­eign Af­fairs Min­is­ter Chrys­tia Free­land must re­gard Saudi Ara­bia’s im­po­si­tion of sanc­tions and pun­ish­ments on Canada as a gift. The Saudi attack, de­spite be­ing a time-con­sum­ing an­noy­ance at an in­con­ve­nient mo­ment, al­lows them to do some­thing that no Cana­dian gov­ern­ment could have done on its own: dis­tance this coun­try from an overly friendly re­la­tion­ship with a regime whose con­duct, in­ter­ests and re­gional in­flu­ence are con­tra­dic­tory to demo­cratic val­ues. Saudi Ara­bia was a vis­i­ble stain on the Lib­er­als’ sup­pos­edly prin­ci­pled, fem­i­nist, rights-pro­mot­ing for­eign pol­icy. There was no way you could call it any of those things as long as one of its most vis­i­ble planks was a cozy eco­nomic, po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary re­la­tion­ship – which in­cluded au­tho­riz­ing the sale of 928 Cana­dian-made ar­moured ve­hi­cles – with a regime that is im­pris­on­ing and flog­ging fem­i­nists, us­ing those ar­moured ve­hi­cles to com­mit mass atroc­i­ties in Ye­men and to attack Saudi cit­i­zens in the coun­try’s east. The “mod­er­ate Is­lam” poli­cies promised by Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man have proved al­most en­tirely il­lu­sory (just this week, the King­dom be­headed and cru­ci­fied a man con­victed of mur­der) and Riyadh’s value as an op­po­nent of Bashar al-As­sad’s rule in Syria is ques­tion­able. But that re­la­tion­ship could only have been ter­mi­nated by the Saudis. Any Cana­dian politi­cian con­sid­er­ing such a move would be faced with a stark cal­cu­lus. The po­lit­i­cal cost – from busi­nesses and uni­ver­si­ties and key con­stituen­cies that ben­e­fit from Saudi ties – would out­weigh any im­me­di­ate ben­e­fit. Most of what we call “for­eign pol­icy” is not about gov­ern­ments ex­press­ing their prin­ci­ples and val­ues, or politi­cians keep­ing prom­ises. Rather, it is about path depen­dency. Gov­ern­ment bu­reau­cra­cies try to keep do­ing what they’ve done be­fore be­cause change is far more dif­fi­cult and risky than con­ti­nu­ity. Any min­is­ter look­ing to dis­tance Ot­tawa from Riyadh would con­front a list of ma­jor de­part­ments with bu­reau­cra­cies that have en­trenched Saudi re­la­tion­ships. The gov­ern­ment’s in­dus­try de­part­ment (In­no­va­tion, Sci­ence and Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment Canada) as well as the glob­al­iza­tion agency Ex­port De­vel­op­ment Canada have spent years shut­tling back and forth to Riyadh, shep­herd­ing con­tracts with Cana­dian giants such as SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. and Bar­rick Gold Corp. The most sig­nif­i­cant might be London, Ont.-based Gen­eral Dy­nam­ics Land Sys­tems, whose $15-bil­lion deal for ar­moured ve­hi­cles rep­re­sents the largest piece of Canada’s Saudi trade and a ma­jor source of work for its 2,000 On­tario em­ploy­ees. The De­part­ment of Na­tional De­fence and Canada’s in­tel­li­gence agen­cies have se­cu­rity and coun­tert­er­ror­ism en­gage­ments with the King­dom, both for­mal and in­for­mal, of­ten as part of re­la­tions with NATO and the United States. And Ms. Free­land’s de­part­ment, Global Af­fairs Canada, is tied up with Saudi Ara­bia in a range of re­gional diplo­matic, gov­er­nance, aid and ed­u­ca­tional pro­grams – in­clud­ing the con­sular work in­volved in bring­ing 15,000 Saudi univer­sity stu­dents to Canada each year. Not only that, but a big part of the work done th­ese days by her de­part­ment, in­clud­ing most of its 180 em­bassies, in­volves wran­gling and horse-trad­ing in­tended to get enough votes among United Na­tions mem­bers to win Canada a ro­tat­ing seat on the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil. Ev­ery­one re­mem­bers that Stephen Harper’s Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment failed in its bid for a Se­cu­rity Coun­cil seat partly be­cause it didn’t have the sup­port of the in­flu­en­tial “Sunni bloc” of Arab states (in that case, be­cause of Mr. Harper’s lop­sided Israel-Pales­tinian pol­icy). With­out a Saudi thumbs-up, Canada could well lose out again. None of this, by it­self, is very im­por­tant to this coun­try. A Se­cu­rity Coun­cil seat holds mainly sym­bolic value – that is, fail­ing to get one makes us look weak – and isn’t worth the sac­ri­fice of time, en­ergy and po­lit­i­cal eq­uity it en­tails. None of the busi­ness deals, even the ar­moured ve­hi­cles, are of cru­cial im­por­tance to any Cana­dian sec­tor or to the over­all econ­omy; to put it in con­text, we have twice as much trade with Brazil. And Saudi Ara­bia’s strate­gic sig­nif­i­cance was al­ways mainly about our re­la­tions with the United States, which aren’t what they used to be. But taken to­gether, they rep­re­sented a huge headache for any gov­ern­ment want­ing to change things. A Saudi-led with­drawal in­verts the equa­tion: By pun­ish­ing Canada for fail­ing to ad­here to its tyran­ni­cal, theo­cratic val­ues – which can’t be de­fended, in good faith, by any Cana­dian party – the Lib­er­als now have good rea­son to place our higher po­lit­i­cal val­ues above the coun­try’s lesser, ma­te­rial am­bi­tions. They no longer have any­thing to lose.


While Canada’s friendly re­la­tion­ship with Saudi Ara­bia was a blem­ish on Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau and For­eign Af­fairs Min­is­ter Chrys­tia Free­land’s for­eign pol­icy, cut­ting those ties could only have been done by the Saudis. The po­lit­i­cal cost for a Cana­dian politi­cian plan­ning such a move would be too high.

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