Why the Harper government flatters Saudi Arabia’s tyrants

Canadian arms sales and geopolitics explain deeply cynical foreign policy stance
Photo: DFATD

Money and monarchy are two of the Conservatives’ favourite things.

This explains Ottawa’s continued minion-like fawning over Saudi Arabia’s House of Saud, a regime notorious for its public executions and repression of women.

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Last week Rob Nicholson, the new foreign affairs minister, continued a Harper government tradition of lauding deceased Saudi royalty after the death of the kingdom’s long-time foreign minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal.

The MP from Niagara Falls said in a statement he was “deeply saddened to learn of the passing of His Royal Highness” and “impressed by his distinguished career serving the people of Saudi Arabia.”

Of course, Nicholson omitted any mention of the former Saudi foreign minister’s efforts to undermine the Arab Spring democracy movement or arm the fundamentalist opposition to Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, which has contributed to the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Playing the sycophant to emperors with lots of clothes comes easily to Harper’s Conservatives.

Upon the death of King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz early this year, the Prime Minister’s Office released a statement in which Harper described the king as a “strong proponent of peace in the Middle East” who “undertook a range of important economic, social, education, health, and infrastructure initiatives.” The prime minister also dispatched Governor General David Johnston to offer Canada’s condolences, at a cost to taxpayers of $175,000. It was a slap to the face of reformers inside Saudi Arabia and throughout the region calling for greater freedom.

The Harper government occasionally releases statements when former officials die in other countries, but it has made such statements common practice with the Saudi royalty. In 2012, then foreign affairs minister John Baird praised a deceased prince for “dedicat[ing] his life to the security and prosperity of the people of Saudi Arabia,” while a year earlier he described another prince as a “man of great achievement who dedicated his life to the security and prosperity of the people of Saudi Arabia.”

Secret Saudi government documents released last month provide further evidence of the Conservatives’ efforts to suck up to the deep-pocketed ruling family. In an April 2012 memo to King Abdullah, then foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal recounted a meeting in Ottawa with Peter Mackay, Canada’s defence minister at the time.

“The honourable minister [Mackay] expressed his appreciation for the major leading role played by the kingdom on the international arena,” wrote Prince Saud. “He emphasized Canada’s desire to develop relations with the kingdom in all fields.”

It would all be kind of funny except that as part of courting the ruling family, the Conservatives have backed the Saudis’ recent military interventions in the region. Last March, just after being named foreign affairs minister, Nicholson endorsed the Saudi assault on Yemen. “Canada supports the military action by Saudi Arabia” to defend its border, he said. On a number of occasions over the past four months, Canadian officials have echoed Saudi Arabia’s justifications for its bombing campaign and intervention in Yemen, which began in March of this year and has left more than 1,500 civilians dead and displaced one million more.

When pro-democracy protests swept the region in 2011, Saudi Arabia deployed over a thousand troops into neighbouring Bahrain to prop up the 200-year-old Al Khalifa monarchy. I can find no direct Canadian criticism of Saudi Arabia’s role in crushing the democracy movement there. Instead, the Harper government has strengthened the Saudi capacity to invade and dominate its neighbours.

Over the next decade General Dynamics Land Systems Canada will supply $15 billion worth of light armoured vehicles to the Saudi military. The Harper government pushed the deal and the Crown-owned Canadian Commercial Corporation is responsible for the sale.

When they entered Bahrain in 2011 Saudi forces likely used Canadian-built light armoured vehicles, and some of the Saudi pilots now bombing Yemen were likely trained in Saskatchewan or Alberta. Beginning in 2011 Saudi pilots began training in Moose Jaw and Cold Lake with NATO Flying Training in Canada, a program run by the Canadian Forces and Montreal-based flight simulator company CAE that has been called “the benchmark for military flying training.” CAE also trains Royal Saudi Air Force pilots in the Middle East.

The spectacle of toadying Tories aside, fawning over one of the world’s most repressive regimes disgraces Canadians and makes life more difficult for those in the region seeking peace and democracy.

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