Canada’s liberal image gets snared by $11.5bn Saudi arms deal

Finian Cunningham is an award-winning journalist. For over 25 years, he worked as a sub-editor and writer for The Mirror, Irish Times, Irish Independent and Britain's Independent, among others.

9 Aug, 2018 17:43 / Updated 6 years ago

A dramatic spat with Saudi Arabia has forced Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to enter the public fray in a bid to calm tempers. But what’s bothering Canada is the possible loss of a major Saudi arms contract.

The row erupted last weekend when Canada’s Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland issued a stern rebuke to Saudi Arabia over the arrest of women’s rights activists in the oil-rich kingdom. One of those arrested, Samar Badawi, has family connections to Canadian citizens.  

The Saudis hit back immediately with a fierce response. Riyadh said it was expelling the Canadian ambassador, and recalled its own envoy from Ottawa. Saudi Arabia also warned it was cancelling all new trade and investments in Canada.  

Initially, Canada’s Freeland refused to back down, saying on Monday that her country would “always stand up for human rights.”  

The Saudis then escalated the row by announcing new restrictive measures. Riyadh said it was suspending the state airline’s flights to and from Toronto, as well as cancelling imports of Canadian barley and wheat, and recalling thousands of Saudi students, trainee doctors and patients who have been hosted as guests in the country.  

Despite the defiant public comments on Monday, by Tuesday Canada’s top diplomat was reportedly trying to patch things up through private phone conversations with Saudi Foreign Minister Abdel al Jubeir. Those conciliatory efforts came to naught.  

Early Wednesday, the Saudi minister was saying there “would be no mediation.” He insisted that Canada must “correct its mistake” of “interfering in Saudi internal affairs.”  

It was also reported that the Saudi central bank was disposing of Canadian equities, bonds and cash holdings.  

But it was the Saudis’ veiled threat of more punitive action that perhaps alarmed the Canadian government most. The Saudi foreign minister said his country was looking at “additional measures against Canada.

It’s an open secret that the Saudis were referring to a major weapons contract that is being finalized with Canada. The arms deal is worth US$11.5 billion (Canadian $15bn). It involves the sale of some 900 combat vehicles with a 14-year follow-up support arrangement.  

To put that figure into perspective, total annual bilateral trade between Canada and Saudi Arabia is estimated at $4bn. The Saudi arms contract is therefore a very big deal for Canada.  

It had been speculated by Canadian officials that the Saudis could axe the arms contract as part of its reprisal over the latest row about human rights activists being arrested. Now it seemed that the “additional measures” mentioned cryptically by the Saudi foreign minister were indeed a reference to the weapons deal.  

After days of keeping silent on the row, Prime Minister Trudeau entered the fray in a bid to calm tensions. Trudeau didn’t offer a public apology as demanded earlier that day by the Saudi minister, but he did call for diplomacy and dialogue.  

Canada will always speak strongly and clearly in private and in public on questions of human rights. We do not wish to have poor relations with Saudi Arabia. Diplomatic talks continue,” said Trudeau.

It was also reported earlier this week that Ottawa has appealed to Britain to mediate in the diplomatic impasse. That followed a surprise rebuff from Washington which said it was not going to get involved in the dispute and that it was up to Canada and Saudi Arabia to resolve the matter.  

It seems, therefore, that Canada was being hung out to dry by its North American neighbor. Alarmed by the growing threats of economic damage, the Canadians reached out to Britain to use its longtime ties to placate the Saudi rulers.  

Several observers have noted how Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has become more assertive in foreign relations – in particular with regard to pushing back at Western governments complaining about human rights in the absolute monarchy.  

Last year, the Saudis reportedly curbed commercial ties with German companies after Berlin had made critical comments about Riyadh’s relations with Lebanon and its apparent interference with the office of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri.  

Another factor is that the Saudi crown prince has been emboldened by having close relations with US President Donald Trump and the White House’s Middle East Envoy Jared Kushner. Trump’s patronage has given the young Saudi ruler a license to take a swipe at critics both at home and abroad.  

When Trump verbally roughed up Canada’s Trudeau at the G7 summit in Quebec in June, it was no doubt noted by the Saudis. Trudeau’s limp response to Trump’s ear-bashing would have given the impression that the Canadian leader is something of a pushover.  

So when Canada’s foreign minister issued her public comments on the arrest of female rights activists, the Saudis knew they had their chance to crush the “liberal” Canadian image without any comeback. The Saudis are also demonstrating to other Western governments to watch their mouths and keep their noses out of internal affairs.  

Moreover, the Saudis know they have the upper hand over Canada because of the lucrative arms deal pending. Ottawa will take a severe hit if it loses US$11.5 billion on that contract – and the thousands of jobs that come with the deal.  

In addition, the Saudis probably surmise that their get-tough tactics will pay off with the Trudeau government because its commitment to human rights and so-called liberal values seems to be superficial and expedient.  

Ever since Trudeau was elected in 2015, he vowed to make “liberal” values a centerpiece of his government. He has championed gender equality in his cabinet and has declared Canada’s foreign policy to be “feminist” – despite sniggers from critics.  

But then, incongruously, Trudeau’s government has steadfastly rejected calls by Canadian human rights groups for the cancellation of the arms deal with Saudi Arabia. That deal was created by the previous Conservative administration of Stephen Harper. Nevertheless, it was Trudeau’s Liberal party that signed off on the export of the armored vehicles.  

Ottawa’s adherence to the Saudi arms deal has been maintained in spite of embarrassing reports last year that previously-supplied Canadian military vehicles have been used by the Saudi regime in a crackdown against minority Shia communities. Freeland said a government investigation found there was no evidence of Canadian equipment being used in Saudi repression and alleged human rights violations. She refused, however, to release the official report.  

READ MORE: Ottawa probes claims Saudi Arabia used Canadian-made weapons against own citizens

It has also been reported that Canadian military exports have been involved in Saudi violations committed against civilians in the war on Yemen. Those claims have not given the Trudeau government pause for thought about the pending arms deal, nor has Ottawa voiced significant protest over the Saudi bombing of civilian targets in Yemen.

Thus, when Canada’s Freeland fired off her comments last weekend over women’s rights activists being detained in Saudi Arabia, she seems to have been preening her country’s supposed liberal image. What Ottawa did not reckon on was the Saudi backlash and veiled threats to ditch a lucrative weapons deal. The Saudis know they can play hardball too because they sense that when it comes to human rights the Trudeau government is snared by its own hypocrisy and liberal vanity.  

The Saudis have Ottawa sussed. Pseudo-Trudeau.  

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