Day 6

Why Canada stays friends with Saudi Arabia

This week Ensaf Haider stood with MPs on Parliament Hill, appealing to Prime Minister Stephen Harper to secure the release of her husband, Raif Badawi. He's been sentenced in Saudi Arabia to a thousand lashes, a decade behind bars and $300,000 in fines for criticizing powerful Saudi clerics. It's just the latest situation that has people questioning Canada's friendly ties to the kingdom.

This week Ensaf Haider stood with MPs on Parliament Hill, appealing to Prime Minister Stephen Harper to secure the release of her husband, Raif Badawi. He's been sentenced in Saudi Arabia to a thousand lashes, a decade behind bars and $300,000 in fines for criticizing powerful Saudi clerics. It's just the latest situation that has people questioning Canada's friendly ties to the kingdom. Brent talks to Thomas Juneau from the University of Ottawa's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and former Middle East analyst for the Department of National Defence. 

I'd like to break this down by talking about some of the big issues in the news, but first, in general terms, why are we friendly with Saudi Arabia?

I think the first thing to say is that, to properly frame the nature of our relationship with Saudi Arabia, Canada does have cordial or positive relations with Saudi Arabia. That's absolutely the case, but it's important to keep in mind that our relations with Saudi are limited. Trade is under $3-billion per year, the number of high-level visits is pretty low, academic and cultural exchanges and other general indicators that suggest a deep relationship are not very present. It's not a big relationship. 

But it is a relationship that we are trying to pursue and keep cordial. What is it that we get out of this relationship?

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper waves Minister of Finance of Saudi Arabia Ibrahim bin Abdulaziz Al-Assaf during the family photo at the G20 Summit on Sept. 6, 2013 in St. Petersburg, Russia. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

We get a number of things out of that relationship. First of all, Saudi Arabia is a priority market for International Trade Canada. Saudi Arabia is one of the biggest economies in the Middle East, so there's a pure commercial interest. More broadly speaking, Canada and the U.S. and its other allies perceive Saudi Arabia as a stabilizing force in the Middle East. It's not a country that opposes Israel, it's a country that opposes Iran, one of our main rivals in the region. In that sense, there's a number of geopolitical alignments with Saudi Arabia. 

Obviously the other reason is oil. Saudi Arabia is by far the most important country in terms of stabilizing oil markets. So if we abstract from just the last few weeks and months when oil prices have gone down, over the last decades, the nature of the fundamental bargain between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia has been that the U.S. guarantees Saudi Arabia security, and in exchange for that, Saudi Arabia guarantees the stability of oil supplies. Nobody else can do that, so there is a very clear interest from an economic and international financial perspective, in keeping a close partnership.

There are contentious issues attached to many of the relationships that we have with the Saudis and I want to talk about one of them right now. Raif Badawi, the blogger with ties to Canada who's been sentenced to a thousand lashes, 10 years in prison and a fine of hundreds of thousands of dollars for charges of blasphemy. What kind of power does Canada wield with the Saudis in negotiating the release of a prisoner like Raif Badawi? 

In this photo provided by the Saudi Press Agency, Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud meets Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird in his office in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia on Oct. 16, 2014. (The Associated Press)

In blunt terms, Canada has no power in our approach or negotiating with Badawi. If Canada were to try and pressure Saudi Arabia on this, whether by public posturing, by rhetoric, or, as has been mentioned in the media a number of times, by refusing to sell $15-billion of armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia. If Canada were to decide not to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia on moral grounds, that would be a very legitimate decision, but we would not have influence on Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is a very closed system, a very authoritarian system, that is very unreceptive to external influence, especially from a small country like Canada. There have been instances were Saudi Arabia did slightly change policies, especially in isolated cases, under pressure from a concerted campaign internationally, but on our own, let's keep in mind that we really don't have any influence on the country. 

But does a human rights issue as serious as the inhumane punishment that has been meted out to Badawi influence the way that we see the Saudis, or the way that we deal with the Saudis and our relations?

Does it? For now, not so much. I think that in its relationship to Saudi Arabia the conservative government has taken quite a pragmatic approach. The conservatives pride themselves on having a principled foreign policy, and in some cases that's true and in other cases it's not. Saudi Arabia is one of the cases where principle is completely trumped by pragmatism. The pragmatism in our relationship with Saudi Arabia is the trade argument - the armoured vehicles - but trade more broadly, and the partnership with a country that's aligned with some of, not all, but some of our geopolitical interests. 

Let's look at the principle versus pragmatism in this arms deal - the $15-billion arms deal  between Canada and Saudi Arabia. The government won't say if they've received assurances that the light armoured vehicles won't be used against Saudi civilians. What does that say to you?

Saudi Arabia's King and Prime Minister Abdallah Bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud arrives at the G20 Summit in Toronto on June 26, 2010. (Jim Young/Reuters)

To begin, let be clear that human rights in Saudi Arabia are horrible. The humans rights record in Saudi Arabia is among the worst in the world. There's no denying that. But the question of whether specific pieces of equipment will or will not, could or could not, be used against civilians - sometimes that's easy to answer and other times that's really not so clear. 

According to Canadian arms expert Ken Epps, Canadian-built armoured vehicles were supplied to Saudi Arabia and then used in 2011 against peaceful demonstrators in Bahrain, by the Bahraini security forces. At that time there was a call to stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia and that didn't happen, so why not? 

Well the answer is very simple. It's that pragmatism and national interests trumped principle in this case. I think the key point to remember, broadly speaking, is that that's the norm. We may lament that, we may find that unfortunate, but in most cases for Canada, as for other countries, that's the nature of international politics, as ugly as it is in many cases. I think one point to highlight here is that the conservative government, louder than many others in the world and many others of its Canadian predecessors, claims that it has a principled foreign policy, and in this case it's simply not true. 

So let's talk about oil now. Saudi Arabia's decision to drive down the global price of oil has severely cooled our energy sector, it's damaged our economy. Why have we maintained a positive relationship with the country in the wake of that?

Saudi Arabia is not completely responsible for this collapse in oil prices. There are a number of international factors that have driven this. That being said, Saudi has certainly allowed, or tolerated, that price decrease by refusing to cut its production. The second point to make is that Saudi's objectives in supporting the decreasing oil prices, and probably continuing that support for low oil prices for at least a few months, Saudi's objectives are not clear. To say that Saudi aims to target the Canadian economy, as some commentators have hinted at, is not proven and probably a bit of a stretch. 

Saudi Arabia is our second largest export market in that region and we're looking to increase our economic opportunities in Saudi Arabia. Why would we continue to expand our economic ties in the face of all the things that we just talked about?

Well let's keep in mind that Canadian trade interests in the Middle East are very small and is unlikely to increase a lot. Does that mean that Canada should try to increase it with Saudi Arabia? If you accept of separating your trade interests from your other foreign policy interests, including moral interests, then there is some scope for Canadian expansion, but it really shouldn't be exaggerated. Prospects for further Canadian trade in the region - Saudi Arabia, other Gulf monarchies - at best it's going to go from very marginal to just a bit less very marginal in the next few years.