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Liberal government unlikely to suspend Saudi arms deal as pressure to respond to Khashoggi killing grows elsewhere, experts say

By Jolson Lim      

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland wouldn't rule out suspending already-approved arms export permits when asked by reporters in the lead up to the G20 Summit in Argentina.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland is pictured speaking to reporters about Saudi Arabia in the House foyer on Oct. 14. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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The Liberal government is unlikely to suspend already-approved arms export permits to Saudi Arabia, despite ongoing international pressure on the country to end its brutal military intervention in Yemen and to own up to the October murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, experts say.

Amid outrage over the desert kingdom’s actions in recent months, Canada announced it is reviewing its ongoing 15-year, $15-billion arms deal with the Saudi Arabia, and recently announced it would suspend the approval of any new arms export permits to the country.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland (University-Rosedale, Ont.) also announced sanctions on 17 Saudi nationals in response to the death of Mr. Khashoggi while in Buenos Aires, Argentina on Nov. 29, ahead of the G20 summit. Speaking to reporters in the South American city, Ms. Freeland wouldn’t rule out suspending existing arms export permits. 

“In the past, we have suspended already-issued export permits, and as the prime minister has said, that is action we have taken in the past and that we stand prepared to take it in the future,” she said.

Human rights advocates, the NDP, and experts including former Trudeau foreign policy adviser Roland Paris have called on the Liberal government to suspend or outright cancel Canada’s arms deal that entails sending hundreds of light armoured vehicles (LAVs) to Saudi Arabia.

The country has been recently criticized for human rights abuses within its borders, its military intervention into Yemen, and its involvement in the murder of political opponent Mr. Khashoggi—all occurring under Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman—often known by his initials MBS.

Germany, Norway, and Denmark recently halted arms exports to the country, and further punitive actions, including measures put forward by the United States’ Senate—where they’re set to debate ending support for Saudi intervention in Yemen—may occur going forward.  

However, Bessma Momani, a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and professor at the University of Waterloo, said she believes it’s unlikely that the Liberal government will suspend the deal.

“I would think it’s not in the Liberal Party’s interest,” she said. “The tactic they’re using now is basically to delay conversation, [to say] ‘we’re considering it, we’re looking at it,’ … to just basically delay the conversation.”

Prof. Momani said there’s obvious factors in play, such as the likely major financial penalty involved, as well as the likely loss of jobs at the General Dynamics Land Systems’ plant in London, Ont., particularly in the context of an overall decline of manufacturing jobs in Canada.

Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and U.S. President Donald Trump are pictured in the Oval Office on March 18. The two leaders have maintained closed ties amid international controversy. Photograph courtesy of the White House

“It’s not smart politics to open that can of worms. It’s just kind of floating out there and telling people they’re considering it enough to appease everybody involved,” she said.

The exact details of the Canada-Saudi deal are under a gag order, and it’s unknown what the exact penalty for suspending or cancelling the deal would be.

Prof. Momani added that the Conservatives, the main political opposition in Canada, aren’t really concerned with the deal. But she said if public opinion changes in the lead up to next October’s election, the Liberals could change course.

“I think they’re going to be looking how it plays out. Certainly if the Canadian public makes a big stink about it, maybe [they’ll suspend it],” she said.

A Nov. 5 Angus Reid poll found 46 per cent of Canadians believe the deal should be cancelled and future arms sales to the country be prohibited. Forty-four per cent believe the agreement should be left alone but future weapons sales prohibited.

University of Ottawa professor Thomas Juneau, a former analyst with the Department of National Defence, supports suspending already-approved arms exports, but is “not 100 per cent convinced” that Canada will do so.

He said outright cancelling the deal would be a “major escalation that would damage the prospect of Canada-Saudi relations for a long time.” He added it wouldn’t be strategically useful for Canada to nix the deal as it amounts to “sticking our neck out too much.”

“This is not a stage that important countries have reached,” he said, emphasizing the importance of Western countries as a whole thinking about what tangible actions they can take and what their goals are with changing the reckless behaviour of MBS and his government’s policies.

Jamal Khashoggi was murdered by Saudi agents on Oct. 2. His death is at the centre of an international scandal with deep diplomatic repercussions for Saudi Arabia. Photo courtesy of April Brady/Project on Middle East Democracy

But Prof. Juneau said as Germany and lawmakers in the U.S. consider further actions on Saudi Arabia, “now is a good time for Canada to take a moderate step in that direction—not a major one, as in cancelling, but a moderate one.”

“Suspending it allows you at the very least to try to send a signal to Saudi Arabia that business as usual doesn’t work,” he said, adding that domestically, such a decision could be moderately popular outside of southern Ontario where much of the country’s manufacturing base is located.

Relations between both countries have soured since August, when Saudi Arabia expelled Canada’s ambassador and froze all new trade and investment relations over a tweet posted by Ms. Freeland regarding the imprisonment of Samar Badawi, the sister of Raif Badawi, a dissident of the Saudi regime.

Prof. Juneau also acknowledged that if Canada were to suspend the agreement, it may pose a series of difficult circumstances going forward, including having to articulate why or why not to continue with a freeze if it comes up for review.

“In a way, suspending may be only procrastinating,” he said. “You have to determine what are your criteria for resuming the delivery of the LAVs.

“Given the climate revolving around anything Saudi Arabia, making the decision to resume the delivery of the LAVs would be a very politically difficult decision to do. On what basis would you make that call? … Is that a decision you make in consultation with allies?”

However, Prof. Juneau said “it is more likely today, then say, one or three months ago, that the government will suspend.”

At the G20 summit, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) said he spoke directly with MBS “on the sidelines” at a dinner hosted by Argentina on Nov. 30 about the “diplomatic discord” between Canada and Saudi Arabia, and the need for answers on the killing of Mr. Khashoggi and the imprisonment of Raif Badawi, The Canadian Press reported. The prime minister also said he talked about the need for an immediate ceasefire and humanitarian aid in Yemen, CP reported. 

“I took the opportunity to have a conversation with the crown prince directly, in which we discussed the diplomatic discord between Canada and Saudi Arabia,” the prime minister told reporters at the G20 in Buenos Aires.

Canada applies ‘symbolic’ sanctions

The Nov. 29 measures announced by Ms. Freeland will freeze any of assets held in Canada by the 17 Saudis, although it’s not known whether any of them have assets in the country. The move will also ban their travel into Canada and void them of refugee protection.

The actions were taken under the year-old Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act—also known as the Magnitsky Act. The measure was announced two weeks after the United States froze assets for the same list of Saudi nationals on Nov. 15.

The sanctions did not include MBS who has been directly linked to the assassination by Turkey and the U.S.’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

NDP foreign affairs critic Hélène Laverdière, pictured speaking to reporters in the House foyer in 2017,  criticized the timing of the announced sanctions in 17 Saudi nationals. The Hill Times photograph by Sam Garcia

NDP foreign affairs critic Hélène Laverdière (Laurier-Sainte-Marie, Que.) said she was “disappointed’ that it took almost two weeks for Canada to follow the U.S.’s path on sanctioning Saudis involved in the Khashoggi killing.

“We’ve been asking for it for about a month,” she said. “It’s a good thing but it’s very little and late … It should have been a lot more rapid and a bit of a no brainer after the U.S. had acted.”

Prof. Momani, however, said the timing of the announcement was “smart.”

“I think the Americans took the spotlight with their own announcements and [Canada’s sanctioning] kind of re-energized the conversation at a critical time, when things are kind of fading,” she said. “It puts the light back on Saudi Arabia again. I’d rather it be we do this and take the spotlight by ourselves as oppose it being buried in the headlines of Americans applying their own.”

She said the decision was “symbolic” but timed well on the heels of the start of the G20 meeting.

“Symbolism matters, particularly today,” she added. “It certainly from my observation of international media it played quite broadly. I think that’s a testament to our voice being respected about these issues.”

Ms. Laverdière also said she’s “not optimistic” that the Liberals will touch the arms deal. She acknowledged the issue of manufacturing jobs but said there’s “options for people working at the plant,” including finding other, more ethical buyers. She said the NDP has asked for a manufacturing strategy for Canada and Ontario.

Mr. Khashoggi was assassinated on Oct. 2 in the country’s consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, where he went to get documents needed to marry his fiancé. At the time, he was a columnist with the Washington Post.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Donald Trump pictured at the 2017 G20 meeting. While Germany recently halted arms exports to Saudi Arabia, the Trump administration has been one of its staunchest defenders. Photograph courtesy of G20

Western countries including Canada have raised questions about the fairness of a Saudi investigation into Mr. Khashoggi’s murder that was announced in mid-October, after credible evidence surfaced showing Saudi agents orchestrated the killing and attempted to cover it up.

Although the Saudi royal family has denied ordering the assassination, the Turkish government said it has an audio recording of Mr. Khashoggi’s death also proving MBS ordered the killing. The director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service travelled to the country to listen to it last month.

The CIA has also concluded that MBS ordered Mr. Khashoggi’s killing, but U.S. President Donald Trump has maintained that there is nothing definite to link the 33-year-old leader to the targeted killing.

Ms. Freeland has also been reluctant to say MBS was involved, telling reporters in Buenos Aires that “it’s very important to act and to speak only on the basis of real certainty.”

The murder of Mr. Khashoggi further tarnished MBS’s image he projects of himself as a moderating figure open to social reform and friendly to international business interests. It comes as the Trump administration seeks closer military and economic ties with the desert kingdom and the president has defended MBS over criticism from Western countries.

Critics say Mr. Trump’s support of MBS has allowed the autocrat to believe he can act internationally with impunity.


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