The recent diplomatic rift between Canada and Saudi Arabia over our government’s public criticism of the regime has served as an awkward reminder that, despite their abhorrent human rights record, we continue to do business with them.
Yes, we were right to call them out — albeit it a little late in the game — on their recent attack on civil liberties, when they jailed women’s activists for simply wanting an end to guardianship laws and continued gender inequality. But it’s hard to appear consistent and sincere with our public criticism while we continue to sell them combat vehicles.
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A deal between the Saudis and a Canadian company for $15-billion worth of light armoured vehicles remains intact. The deal, brokered by the Harper government and completed by Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, is particularly troubling when evidence suggests that the Saudi Arabian government may have used Canadian-made vehicles against its own citizens.
While there have been promises of reform from Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, many of these developments (the exception being that women are now allowed to drive) have failed to materialize. Now, even the most benign concern, in the form of Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland’s tweet, has managed to produce a ridiculous temper tantrum from the Saudis instead of any introspection.
The 'worst of the worst'
We’re talking, after all, about an absolute monarchy with a near-total lack of political rights and civil liberties. This is a place that imposes the amputation of hands and feet for robbery and flogging for public drunkenness and adultery — which, by the way, often includes rape victims who are unable to identify their rapist.
Torture of prisoners is allowed and capital punishment is routine, with those found guilty beheaded, stoned, and often crucified.
According to Freedom House, an NGO that conducts research and advocacy on democracy and human rights, more than 150 people were executed in Saudi Arabia in 2016. It was the second consecutive year in which the total passed that threshold. Defendants are generally denied due process, and many are executed for crimes other than murder. The regime consistently ranks among the “worst of the worst” in the NGO’s annual survey of political and civil rights.
In 2016, a Saudi man was sentenced to 2,000 lashes and 10 years in prison for merely tweeting something critical of Islam, so one can only imagine what the Saudi regime thinks of Freeland’s tweet. The kingdom is averse to any public criticism and their overreaction has been seen by many as a low-risk warning of sorts to future critics.
Doing the right thing won’t cost us much
The reason it’s low risk is because Canada’s trade with Saudi Arabia is, in fact, minimal. Even Saudi Arabian crude oil imports to Canada are easy to replace, according to experts, because they represent less than 10 per cent of total imports, a “drop in the bucket.”
So, when the Saudis assure us that the recent spat won’t affect oil sales, maybe it’s time for us to tell them otherwise. Why are we so eager to buy our oil from them, anyway? Surely at those minimal quantities we can afford to purchase it elsewhere without affecting our bottom line that much?
Even Saudi Arabia selling off Canadian assets in a fire sale did absolutely nothing to our dollar. As former national security analyst Stephanie Carvin tweeted, “In 2010, Canada did $1 billion in exports to Saudi Arabia. To put it in perspective, right now we do ~$300 billion with the US. A breakdown in relations is never great but this ain’t exactly going to kill us.”
The withdrawal of students and medical interns may hurt us in the short term, but in the long run we can afford to start distancing ourselves from this brutal regime. One way is to focus more on green energy. In 2016, Christopher Barrington-Leigh, assistant professor in the School of Environment at McGill University, mapped every province’s potential for renewable energy sources. He found that Canada was well on its way to a renewable-energy future.
“There is plenty of renewable-energy potential near current roads, power lines and population centres,” he concluded in an op-ed in the Globe and Mail.
“By 2022, it will simply be cheaper to build and provide a gigawatt of wind power than the cheapest fossil-fuel alternative, and solar will be just behind,” he writes. “Because wind and solar are technologies, not fuels, their costs will continue to drop as time goes on.”
While the conversation about Canada’s need to shift away from fossil fuel dependency is nothing new, now is a good time to revive it. It’s also a timely reminder that we need to start relying less on countries that are morally reprehensible for any kind of trade.
We don’t need to prop up regimes that are jailing prisoners of conscience or bombing and murdering children in Yemen.
“Canada will always speak strongly and clearly in private and in public on questions of human rights,” Trudeau recently proclaimed. As a Canadian, I’m proud of that. But maybe it’s time we did more than speak.