A little perspective on the Canada-Saudi tiff

You gotta hand it to MBS, the power behind the throne in Saudi Arabia.  Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, son of the current king, has sure made a name for himself of late.  Letting women drive.  Promising a new future for his country with shiny impressive technological cities and the like. Corruption has been nipped in the bud with the arrests of dozens of the high and mighty and the draconian antediluvian Mutawa (religious police) have had their powers curtailed. Yessiree, it looks like the Kingdom may finally join the 21st century, all under his marvelous leadership.

Alas, as with most things in life – I am really sorry to burst the balloon on this one – not all is at it seems.  Despite what really does appear to be progress on several social fronts (which we should acknowledge and commend), the Saudi regime is still a nasty one.  The Saudis, with their UAE partners in crime, are engaged in a brutal war in Yemen to curb alleged Iranian hegemonic intent and are killing and brutalising thousands upon thousands of innocent Yemeni men, women and children.  The monarchy has also played hardball with Qatar over the latter’s supposed support for ‘Islamist groups’ (but in truth over its permissive attitude towards Al Jazeera, the closest thing the Arab world has to a free – ish – media outlet) and even threatened to build a canal where the Qatari peninsula meets the Saudi mainlandAnd of course there was its kidnapping of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri a few months ago.  Oh well, one baby step forward, several large strides back I suppose.

In addition, there are credible reports that the Saudis paid Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), one of the more lethal AQ affiliates, to piss off in Yemen to open the way for a concentrated effort against the ‘Iranian-backed’ Houthis (and probably with the full knowledge of the US military).  If true, it looks bad for a country that after all did supply 15 of the AQ 19 hijackers that carried out the 9/11 attacks.  And we are supposed to be ok with this?

Even my country has been caught up in an incident where, as far as I am concerned, Saudi Arabia’s true colours have come out for all to see.  In spite of the new ‘era of freedom’, the Saudi government has arrested several activists, including the sister of a writer currently in prison for ‘insulting Islam’.  The Canadian government has called for these detainees to be released and for the recent crackdown on dissent to end.  In response the Saudis have pouted and declared they are taking their ball and going home (both figuratively and literally: Saudis studying in Canada have been ordered to return to the Kingdom).  The Saudis have sniffed that Canada has no business telling them what to do with their oppositionists.  They have even cancelled the few direct flights from Canada to Saudi Arabia.  Yep, the Saudis are miffed.  To top things off a Tweet linked to a Saudi authority (apparently – my intel background makes me want to see a lot more proof that this is so) showed an airliner flying toward the iconic CN Tower in Toronto with the warning “he who with what doesn’t concern him finds what doesn’t please him” (yeah, I know the English ain’t great but I think we get the point).  Hmm, planes into structures: where have we seen that before??

The implications for Canada are middling at best.  Bilateral trade was valued at about $4 billion last year, although a big chunk of that was a deal for Canadian-made military vehicles that angered a lot of people in the first place in light of the Saudi tendency to use them against Saudi Shia on the country’s east coast.  The loss of Saudi students, who pay significantly more than Canadian ones, will hurt a bit more, but the Canadian government’s stance is the proper one.  If we cannot hold our ground on fundamental human rights  issues when a bully blusters, then when can we?  Besides, we are not the only one fed up with the Saudi penchant for intolerance.  Malaysia closed a Saudi-sponsored ‘anti-terrorism centre’ over concerns that the religious teaching to be spread was hateful, violent Saudi Wahhabism.

I don’t know where all this is going and I hope my government does not cave into Saudi harrumphing.  Maybe other countries will see our lead and be brave enough to follow.  Then again, the Western world has been kowtowing to the Saudis for decades and I fear it will continue to do so.

Nope, the emperor (aka the Crown Prince) has no clothes.  It is time to say so.  The Saudis deserve real change but I am pretty confident that the men in power now aren’t going to deliver it.



By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

Leave a Reply