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Saudis to mount cultural showcase next month, amid human rights investigation

By Peter Mazereeuw      

The Saudi ambassador to Canada says the two countries need closer ties, while Canada has ‘expressed its concerns’ about the Saudi government’s security operations.

Saudi Ambassador Naif Bin Bandir Alsudairy is in charge of building ties between his country and Canada, even as Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland oversees an investigation into a Saudi military operation that human rights groups say has targeted civilians. The Hill Times photographs by Sam Garcia
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The Saudi Embassy is preparing a charm offensive in Ottawa next month, bringing dancers to the lawns of Parliament Hill and flying in schoolchildren to act as citizen ambassadors, while Ottawa investigates whether the Saudi government used Canadian-made armoured vehicles against its citizens.

The Saudi Cultural Days festival being planned is actually a scaled-down version of a similar show that had been planned last year, and will be one of many public cultural displays being put on by countries from across the world at Lansdowne Park throughout this year as part of celebrations of Canada’s 150th birthday.

The Saudi contribution on Sept. 26 and 27 will include a “children’s corner,” featuring Saudi schoolchildren flown in to chat about their country with Ottawa students visiting the cultural display, as well as a ballad about “peace and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s role in combating terrorism,” and art and fashion displays.

It will also feature a two-and-a-half-hour performance on the lawns of Parliament Hill on Sept. 28 by about two dozen professional dancers.

The festival was called off last year for what the Saudi Embassy said were logistical reasons. While that festival was expected to include about 100 professional performers, this year’s version will be scaled down to about 50 or fewer, including the school children, according to Ambassador Naif Bin Bandir AlSudairy.

Like every diplomatic mission, the Saudi Embassy is trying to build its cachet or soft power in Canada. Mr. AlSudairy just happens to have a more difficult task than most of his peers.

The federal government is investigating video footage that appears to show Saudi troops using what experts interviewed by The Globe and Mail identified as Canadian-made armoured vehicles in a military operation in a mostly-Shia urban area of the Sunni-ruled country. The Saudi government has clashed with citizens in its restive Shia Eastern Province this summer, leading to violence that drew rare criticism from the Canadian government about the way the Saudi government is handling the issue.

This comes amid another round of front-page headlines in The Globe and on Radio Canada and the CBC drawing attention to what human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have said are persistent human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia and neighbouring Yemen, where a Saudi-led military alliance is helping the Yemeni government fight off a rebel movement, and has killed civilians while doing so.

Canada’s government recently approved the export of $15-billion worth of armoured vehicles to the Saudi government. The government has a policy of blocking arms exports to persistent human rights violators, “unless it can be demonstrated that there is no reasonable risk that the goods might be used against the civilian population.” Whether the armoured-vehicle deal with Saudi Arabia violates the government’s policy is an issue that has dogged both the previous Conservative government of Stephen Harper and the current Liberal government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.), thanks largely to reporting by The Globe and others.

Mr. AlSudairy’s job is to make Saudi Arabia come out of this muck shining in the eyes of the Canadian public, or at least its government.

His challenge isn’t limited to countering the headlines about human and civil rights abuses. Canada has a relatively small trading relationship with the kingdom, a small Saudi diaspora, and, generally, a very different worldview.

The reverse is also true: Canada holds limited leverage and importance in Saudi Arabia, an outsized oil-wealthy global player given its population of 32 million people.

Mr. AlSudairy does his best to make a case for closer ties amid the controversy: he cites Saudi Arabia’s role as a nexus of the Islamic world, home to Mecca, which more than one billion Muslims in Canada and the rest of the world face five times each day as they pray.

He points to Canada’s partnership with Saudi Arabia in the G20, to the thousands of Saudi students, many of them studying medicine, who come to Canada for their post-secondary education, and the Canadians working in Saudi Arabia.

He likens the outcry in Canada over the arms deal to a squabble between family members.

“You have to work to meet halfway, and to understand each other—to find a way to build bridges between the two nations. I think Canada is very important for Saudi Arabia, and vice versa as well,” he told The Hill Times in an interview Aug. 24.

Mr. AlSudairy stands firm on his embassy’s formal response to the video footage, published on social media and highlighted by The Globe, that appears to show Canadian-made armoured vehicles used against Saudi citizensThe Saudi ambassador said the targets are not civilians, or rebels; they are terrorists.

“When you buy something, I think you are free to use it, in terms of protecting the civilians,” he said.

Canada’s complaints ‘wouldn’t make a difference:’ analyst

When asked whether the incoming festival—a travelling troupe that visits new countries each year—was part of an effort to counter negative press about Saudi Arabia connected to the arms deal, Mr. AlSudairy said he disagreed with the premise of the question.

“The arms deal is also a part of the relationship between the two countries, and we started this relationship—it’s almost 50 years ago. If there is some misunderstanding it’s because of this information we saw in the media…this cultural event is a completely different story: it’s an event to show our Canadian friends that we care about Canada,” he said.

When asked whether the embassy had been contacted by Global Affairs Canada regarding the government’s investigation into alleged human rights abuses, Mr. AlSudairy said his embassy was in regular contact with the department. He said he had not discussed the matter with Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland (University-Rosedale, Ont.).

Advocacy group Leadnow delivered a petition to Ms. Freeland’s riding office Aug. 25 with more than 12,000 signatures, calling for the government to cancel the export permit for the armoured vehicles.

In response to questions about the government’s investigation, Global Affairs Canada told The Hill Times in a written statement that it “is actively seeking more information about Saudi Arabia’s current efforts to deal with its security challenges” and the situation in the country’s east. “Canada expects the end user of any and all exports to abide by the terms in our export permits…The government has expressed its concerns to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that its internal security operations be conducted in a manner consistent with international human rights law.”

The department had previously told The Globe, after its recent reporting about the Canadian-made vehicles seemingly used against civilians: “The minister is deeply concerned about this situation and has asked officials to review it immediately,” and “If it is found that Canadian exports have been used to commit serious violations of human rights, the minister will take action.”

The Saudi government is working to diversify its global relationships beyond its close ties with the United States, but, in the big picture, “Canada is not very important for the Saudis,” said Thomas Juneau, a professor at the University of Ottawa’s specializing in relations with the Middle East, and a former analyst at the Department of National Defence.

“The reality is that we don’t have influence on Saudi domestic issues. We can try, but we don’t. We can complain about human rights in Saudi Arabia…morally it would be the right thing to do, but it wouldn’t make a difference,” he said.

On the other hand, Western nations can benefit from ensuring the stability of the Saudi regime, given its influence over world oil supply and prices, he said.

peter@hilltimes.com

@PJMazereeuw

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