Why Canada should NOT be in a hurry to re-embrace Saudi Arabia

This piece appeared in The Hill Times on August 12, 2019.

I never worked in foreign affairs or for Foreign Affairs (or Global Affairs Canada as it is now known, having once been designated External Affairs and many other names) but I know a little about about the subject. After all, you cannot work in intelligence for three decades without picking up a thing or two on how nations manage their relations with other states.

I do know that at times a country has to hold its nose when engaging with a foreign partner whose actions are seen as, at a minimum, distasteful or, at a maximum, grotesque. In this light I cannot imagine how the current crew at the Lester B. Pearson building in Ottawa are handling Canada-US ties given the present occupant of the White House.

There are also those who maintain that some level of relationship is better than none. A complete cut in ties removes any form of influence or dialogue, although there are other fora (the UN for example) where national representatives can grab a coffee and chitchat about all things statecraft.

On the other hand there are times and circumstances where a government has little choice but to close doors. Sometimes a state will engage in activities that are truly heinous and no country should allow such to go unpunished.

Saudi Arabia is now in that club. Canada has chosen, at least under Prime Minister Trudeau, to criticise the Kingdom over a variety of incidents, ranging from its treatment of women activists to its disastrous war in Yemen which is directly causing a massive humanitarian crisis. The event that overshadows everything, however, is last year’s murder and dismemberment of a Saudi dissident, Jamal Kashoggi, at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Everyone knows that he was killed on orders from the very top of the Saudi royal family, their incredulous denials notwithstanding. In return the Saudis have suspended relations, booted our ambassador in Riyadh out and recalled their own man from Ottawa. There has not been a lot of movement on this file in some time although Foreign Minister Freeland and her Saudi counterpart have been “discussing ideas to de-escalate”.

Into this mix comes the Conservative Party, whose foreign affairs critic, Erin O’Toole, has said that a government led by Andrew Sheer will try to “win some trust” with the Saudis by focusing on improving business links. Mr. O’Toole acknowledges that for some Canadians re-establishing ties with Saudi Arabia will be a “tough sell”.

Ya think?

I fail to see why so many states are still fawning over Saudi Arabia, and especially the king-in-waiting and international star Muhammad bin Salman (or MBS as he is called: some say the acronym stands for ‘Mister Bone Saw’, a reference to how Mr. Kashoggi was cut up). Yes, yes, it is all about oil and MBS’ plans to modernise his nation and the need to have a stalwart ally against the real menace: Iran.

Except that the Crown Prince’s words are probably just that: words. Saudi Arabia remains a heavily conservative Wahhabi Muslim state that has exported its hateful strain of Islam worldwide for decades and crushes any internal dissent forcefully. True, there has been some crackdown on the more egregious religious hatemongers but this leopard is highly unlikely to change its spots any time soon.

I find it hard to believe that many governments, including the US, have been giving the Kingdom a pass in the post 9/11 period. Recall that 15 of the 19 hijackers that fateful day were Saudis, bred on Saudi Wahhabi Islam. And for all the noises about a mellowing of Islam in the desert kingdom there is ample evidence that Saudi-trained imams are continuing to spread Wahhabi poison around the world. And this is what an ally does?

I realise that money trumps values a lot of the time. In this regard there is a lot of money to be made by having a robust relationship with Saudi Arabia, particularly in the defence sector. But what is more important: trade or the values Canada stands for?

So Mr. O’Toole, if your party indeed gains power in October have a re-think over going cap in hand to the Saudis. We really don’t need them. Their actions are antithetical to who we are. I’d like to suggest that you be a little more Canadian yourself and ditch this idea.

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting: he worked as a strategic analyst at CSIS from 2001-2015.

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.

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