Canada's Re­buke of Saudi Ara­bia Long Over­due

The Victoria Standard - - Commentary - MOR­GAN DUCHESNEY

After decades of qui­etly tol­er­at­ing Saudi Ara­bia’s ugly hu­man rights record, Canada re­cently ob­jected by Twit­ter, sharply an­noy­ing both the regime and those who deal prof­itably with the oil-rich king­dom.

Of­fi­cial Canada’s ap­proach to this bru­tal theoc­racy rests on the fan­tasy that con­tin­ued ex­po­sure to su­pe­rior Cana­dian ethics will even­tu­ally lib­er­al­ize the regime. Un­for­tu­nately, there is lit­tle ev­i­dence link­ing Western in­flu­ence to the mod­est so­cial re­forms now un­der­way in Saudi Ara­bia. Un­til po­lit­i­cal dis­sent and protest are tol­er­ated, gen­uine progress is a dis­tant hope.

On Aug. 3, the Saudi govern­ment re­acted strongly to For­eign Min­is­ter Chrys­tia Free­land’s tweet re­quest­ing the re­lease of prom­i­nent women's rights cam­paigner Sa­mar Badawi and other civil so­ci­ety ac­tivists. Badawi’s brother Raif cur­rently sits in a Saudi Ara­bian prison for crit­i­ciz­ing pow­er­ful Saudi cler­ics and govern­ment of­fi­cials. Prime Min­is­ter Trudeau sub­se­quently re­fused to apol­o­gize for Free­land’s re­marks and de­clared his in­ten­tion to con­tinue ad­vo­cat­ing, both pub­licly and pri­vately, for hu­man rights.

The Saudi govern­ment re­tal­i­ated by ex­pelling Canada’s am­bas­sador, stop­ping Toronto flights, halt­ing in­vest­ment and trade, and re­call­ing 16,000 Saudi stu­dents. Of Toronto’s 3600 med­i­cal res­i­dents, 216 are Saudi, so their ab­sence many have a neg­a­tive ef­fect on pa­tients for­merly un­der their care.

Some cor­po­rate pun­dits have de­clared the af­fair an in­ter­na­tional cri­sis and a dan­ger to progress on hu­man rights in Saudi Ara­bia. The king­dom’s re­sponse to Free­land’s rea­son­able re­quest is clear ev­i­dence of Saudi Ara­bia’s con­fi­dence in its abil­ity to in­tim­i­date and ma­nip­u­late both do­mes­tic and for­eign crit­ics.

I wasn’t sur­prised to note John Baird’s re­cent ap­pear­ance on Saudi Ara­bian state TV where he de­manded that Canada apol­o­gize to the regime for dar­ing to crit­i­cize its be­hav­iour. The Bar­rick Gold ad­vi­sor and for­mer Con­ser­va­tive for­eign af­fairs min­is­ter was likely con­cerned about Bar­rick’s Saudi ven­tures. A well-con­nected in­di­vid­ual like Baird must be aware that Saudi Ara­bia re­cently sen­tenced a fe­male po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist to death by be­head­ing, nev­er­the­less, he scolded Canada.

When I wrote last year about Canada’s mil­i­tary ex­ports to Saudi Ara­bia, I was un­aware that Saudi Ara­bia re­placed the U.S. as Canada’s top arms cus­tomer in 2014. This change was due to the $14.8 bil­lion LAV (light ar­mored ve­hi­cle) con­tracts bro­kered for Gen­eral Dy­nam­ics Canada by a crown cor­po­ra­tion called Cana­dian Com­mer­cial Cor­po­ra­tion. While th­ese ve­hi­cles have not yet been de­liv­ered,

Of­fi­cial claims about the LAV are ridicu­lous. Both the Harper and Trudeau gov­ern­ments have at­tempted to present the LAV as a be­nign form of mil­i­tary trans­porta­tion, how­ever, th­ese ve­hi­cles are de­signed to carry a host of lethal weapons de­signed pri­mar­ily for use against mil­i­tary tar­gets, rather than civil­ians. The pow­er­ful LAV will mount ma­chine guns, au­to­matic grenade launch­ers, can­nons and com­put­er­ized an­ti­tank rock­ets.

Saudi Ara­bia’s neigh­bour Bahrain de­ployed Cana­dian-built Saudi LAVS to attack do­mes­tic pro-democ­racy de­mon­stra­tors in 2011. In 2015, Saudi LAV’S in Na­jran, Ye­men, were iden­ti­fied as Cana­dian-made by a re­tired Cana­dian gen­eral who spoke anony­mously to the Globe and Mail.

Aside from be­ing Canada’s largest arms cus­tomer, Saudi Ara­bia is deemed by Canada’s govern­ment, ma­jor cor­po­ra­tions, cer­tain lobby groups and cor­po­rate pun­dits as a sta­bi­liz­ing force in the Mid­dle East. There­fore, our so-called cor­dial re­la­tions with the Saudis are mainly for­mal and as re­cently demon­strated, rather frag­ile.

Of spe­cial value is Saudi Ara­bia’s ba­sic neu­tral­ity on Is­rael, and their hos­til­ity to Iran’s in­flu­ence in the Mid­dle East. The king­dom’s enor­mous oil re­serves have fa­cil­i­tated a U.S. guar­an­tee of Saudi se­cu­rity in ex­change for their role in sta­bi­liz­ing the in­ter­na­tional price and sup­ply of oil.

A com­mon theme among Cana­dian sup­port­ers of ex­pand­ing Al­berta’s oil sands and build­ing na­tional pipe­lines is hos­til­ity to so-called un­eth­i­cal oil im­ports. Per­haps th­ese peo­ple miss the hypocrisy of sup­port­ing eth­i­cal oil while si­mul­ta­ne­ously ex­port­ing ar­mored ve­hi­cles to the un­eth­i­cal Saudi regime for the sake of Cana­dian jobs. Un­for­tu­nately, Canada is one of many na­tions ea­ger to sell weapons to Saudi Ara­bia and other re­pres­sive Gulf States.

In spite of Chrys­tia Free­land’s bold mes­sage, of­fi­cial Canada is still vague about its plans to op­pose Saudi Ara­bia’s on­go­ing hu­man rights abuses, and the lat­est LAV deal will likely pro­ceed. Only a global re­jec­tion of fos­sil fuel ex­trac­tion will re­move Saudi Ara­bia’s abil­ity to ex­ploit Western self-in­ter­est and the geopol­i­tics of oil.

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