Canada—and the world—needs Saudi Arabia “whether we like it or not,” according to Canada’s recently expelled ambassador to the kingdom, but a path to renewed relations is unclear with the impulsive Saudi crown prince showing no sign of backing down.
As “imperfect as it might be,” a stable Saudi Arabia is key in the Middle East, said Dennis Horak, who retired as a diplomat after the August fallout from what he called an “ill-advised” Canadian tweet criticizing the Gulf nation.
Riyadh’s reaction was “way over the top,” he said. Following Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland’s call for the immediate release of detained activists, the country recalled its ambassador, froze new trade, and brought its students in Canadian medical schools home
“How do we come back from that? I don’t think an apology is necessary and certainly we’re not going to get one,” but there may be something in between, said Mr. Horak, stressing the need for stability.
“If Saudi Arabia were to descend into the kind of chaos that’s potentially there, it would make Syria look like a picnic and the reverberations across the world would be dramatic.”
Any movement in the near future might be difficult for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman given his country’s foreign minister publicly demanded an apology from Canada for the tweet last month, as reported by Bloomberg.
“That’s hard for him to draw back on,” Mr. Horak told a sold-out crowd of former diplomats, professors, students, and others on Oct. 16 at a Canadian International Council event in Ottawa.
The crown prince has proven himself “completely reckless,” and the costs of associating with Saudi Arabia “have skyrocketed,” added Thomas Juneau, assistant professor of international affairs at the University of Ottawa, who also spoke at the event.
While it’s important to “reassess” how to manage that relationship, Mr. Juneau also said Saudi Arabia is a “necessary partner” for the West. The answer is not to “jettison” the partnership, but to create a bit more distance.
Mr. Horak said it’s going to take “engagement to a degree” Canada hasn’t had “for a number of years with Saudi Arabia,” calling the torn ties “a big loss.”
The 16,000 international students called back represent much more than a financial hit, Mr. Horak said, calling those educated in Canada important from a values perspective as they act as “agents for change” when they return home—to a country he said is becoming “more authoritarian, not less,” despite much-publicized recent reforms such as allowing women to drive.
As to when the broken relations will mend, he said, “who knows?” But, he said, “there has to be a will to do it.”
Canada considered a harsher response, said Mr. Horak, noting there was talk in August of cutting off shipments to Saudi oil.
Such an “escalatory measure” would amount to “a gesture without effect” because Canada doesn’t import that much Saudi oil, but it could’ve exacerbated the situation.
“They chose not to do it,” he said of the Canadian government, without explaining why.
Human rights cases can’t be the driver of international policy, said Mr. Horak, whether it’s women’s rights activists such as Samar Badawi, or her brother Raif, a jailed blogger whose wife lives in Canada, or others. Ms. Freeland tweeted her support for both the Badawi siblings in August.
That doesn’t mean moving on or forgetting the Badawi family, said Mr. Horak, or what happened to journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who has disappeared since last being spotted at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul, Turkey two weeks ago. Numerous reports, citing Turkish officials, allege he was killed and dismembered by a team of Saudi hitmen.
The kingdom’s leaders have denied any knowledge of what took place inside the consulate. On Oct. 16, G7 foreign ministers, including Ms. Freeland (University-Rosedale, Ont.), supported investigating the journalist’s disappearance and holding those responsible to account.
“I think what the Americans are doing is absolutely right, sending [U.S. Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo and others who have picked up the phone and said to the Saudis: ‘What the hell are you doing?’”
In light of the outrage over Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance, Mr. Horak agreed with an audience member’s assessment that it “would be political suicide” for the Liberal government to submit to Saudi Arabia’s demands and apologize.
The international response shouldn’t include trying to sanction or isolate the aggressive kingdom, because Mr. Horak said he doesn’t think it’s possible or a good idea.
“You can’t let your foreign policy be dictated by an individual or an individual case. There are broader interests that need to be there,” he said.
Saudi Arabia no longer sees itself as “a” regional power, but “the” regional power, said Mr. Horak during his talk where he offered context on the kingdom’s recent actions.
“They see themselves as the leading Arab state and intend to come out [from] behind the curtain—vigorously if necessary,” he said, though the country has had a difficult time managing this new role.
Its citizens are becoming more nationalistic—it’s the “flag rather than the mosque”—as the conservative religious establishment has been weakened.
While the country has seen a “sea change in attitude,” its much-discussed Vision 2030, and the strategy’s built-in social and economic reforms, can be summed up as: “go to the movies and shut up.” In other words, Mr. Horak suggested that while the country has seen some surface-level changes (holding its first commercial movie screening at a theatre in 35 years this year, for instance), it hasn’t made any more fundamental democratic reforms, such as allowing for political dissent.
In recent years, he said he was struck by how much Saudi Arabia felt like Iran.
Mr. Horak knows a lot about both, having worked as a diplomat in Saudi Arabia from 1996 to 1999, and also as head of mission in Iran from 2009 to 2012, when Canada decided to cut ties with the country.
Iran and Saudi Arabia have long been regional rivals, following different versions of Islam and jockeying for influence over other countries in the Middle East.
Calling it an imperfect analogy, Mr. Horak compared relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia to the Cold War. But he didn’t predict a “hot war” because the Iranians can’t be sure the Americans won’t step in on behalf of the Saudis, but Saudis can’t be sure they will.
Prof. Juneau said the friction between Saudi Arabia and Iran is the “dominant dynamic” in the Middle East and they will confront each other “indirectly,” affecting regional stability. He’s not as confident that a conflict won’t happened.
“The dynamic is about as unstable as it can be,” he said.
A “stupid” law put in place by Stephen Harper’s former Conservative government that meant Iran could be sued and foreign assets seized remains a “big hurdle to jump” as some observers call for renewed relations with the Islamic republic.
Enacted in 2012, the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act meant those harmed by terrorists could seek compensation including from states enabling the terrorism, and also led to Iran’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism under Canada’s State Immunity Act.
“It was a stupid law and it’s a still a stupid law—it’s a law that’s a gesture,” Mr. Horak said, noting it had support across parties.
“We’re stuck with it.”
In 2012, Mr. Harper decided to pull diplomats from Iran, order Iranian officials to leave Canada, and cut all ties, in part because of what he said were safety and security concerns for staff, ongoing human rights violations, and Iran’s threats to Israel.
“Lost in all the information about the reasons why was the real reason,” said Mr. Horak, pointing to the legislative changes. “It’s no coincidence that we closed the embassy basically the day after legislation [came into effect.]”
The Liberal government vowed at the start of its mandate in 2015 to re-engage with Iran, but that looks unlikely now. The Liberals supported a Conservative House of Commons motion in the spring that called on the government to end diplomatic talks with the country.
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