Canada's Rebuke of Saudi Arabia Long Overdue
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.