Human rights sidelined as Canada ships billions in arms to Saudi Arabia

Protesters with sign reading “Stop selling weapons to Saudi Arabia” Wikipedia Commons

Foreign policy brutality

It wasn’t too long ago that Saudi Arabia was considered untouchable by many in regards to foreign policy. The Kingdom of Saud remains one of the richest nations on Earth and has been the leading producer of oil for decades, and that single fact has kept it safe from economic sanctions or any sort of international humanitarian oversight. Some of us can even remember when OPEC, led by Saudi Arabia, flexed its muscles and sent the West into an economic depression by cutting off oil imports in response to NATO’s support of Israel. However, much has changed since the 1970s. The oil market is tanking faster with each technological leap and climate disaster, the Middle East is no longer a chess board split between Soviets and Americans, and the Saudi government can no longer hope to hide in the shadows.

            If you are not in the know, here’s a quick history lesson on Saudi Arabia. Following WWI and the Sykes-Picot Agreement, what is today known as Saudi Arabia was a mishmash of a dozen or so noble tribes and regional powers vying for control of the regions oil fields after Faisal’s British backed Confederacy broke down. After a few decades of intermittent civil war, the House of Saud came out on top, which under normal circumstances wouldn’t mean anything for Westerners, save for one crucial detail. At the time, the Saudi noble family had recently embraced an extreme and austere form of Sunni Islam called Wahhabism, which is notable for its incredible hostility to the West, its hardline attitude towards civil and minority rights, and its focus on complete religious domination and ‘purification’ throughout the entire Middle East. To put this into perspective, even Al-Qaeda deems the sect too extreme, and much of its theology was a major inspiration during the early formation of ISIS/ISIL.

Nowadays, Saudi Arabia has toned own their religious rhetoric [barely]; however, that’s not saying much. The kingdom operates as an authoritarian theocracy complete with all the Orwellian hallmarks we know and love: mass surveillance, cloak and dagger foreign policy, and extreme oppression of its citizens. In recent years, Saudi Arabia has been known most for helping to foment the catastrophic Yemen Civil War in the wake of the Arab Spring, and continues to this day to aid religious and authoritarian extremists in the area. While yes, Crown Prince and heir to the Saudi Throne, Mohammed bin Salman, has promised social reforms such as increased women’s rights and freedom of worship for Christians and Jews (although atheism is still punishable by death), the trade-off is a complete monopoly and the absolute subjugation of any and all political opposition. After all, it’s only been a few years since the country recalled university students studying abroad for fear of the possible spread of ‘radical’ ideas such as equal rights for all or, you know, not getting publicly executed for speaking out against an immoral totalitarian regime. Despite this, though, the Canadian government has largely maintained a status quo relationship with the Saudi Crown and continues to support its theocratic/imperialistic aspirations through the trade of arms and military materials.

Recently, however, there have been growing signs of coming change. Following the demise of ISIS/ISIL in 2019 and the Paris Climate Accord in 2015, Western powers have begun to re-evaluate their respective relationships to the Saudi regime. As renewable energy and transport alternatives continue to eat away at the fossil fuel industry, the demand for Saudi oil has rapidly declined, leaving the Saud crown without its crucial trump card. Also, the threat of global Islamist terrorism has diminished significantly over the last five years, and the need for a dubious regional ally in the Middle East is no longer a necessity. The Yemeni civil war, which will soon reach it’s tenth birthday, has become the globe’s worst humanitarian disaster, and despite international demands for a cease-fire or peaceful resolution, the Saudi government has continued to pour gas on the fire. And finally, with the total withdrawal of Saudi students from international campuses, much of the informed public has grown to count the regime as just another global pariah.

A few weeks ago several government officials, alongside humanitarian organizations such as Amnesty International, ALNAP, and The Humanitarian Coalition, called on the federal government to cease any and all military aid to Saudi Arabia. While the feds have yet to respond to these calls, there might be reason for some semblance of optimism. For starters, this is not the first time the Trudeau government has been called out for it’s support of Saudi Arabia. In 2018, Following the state sanctioned assassination of the Washington Post journalist and Saudi national, Jamal Khashoggi, in Turkey, members of the global community formally jumped off the pro-Saudi train, including NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, who, among others, called on the Liberal government to cease military aid. Under threat of an oil embargo, though, the PM’s cabinet released a strongly worded statement but ultimately did not react to these calls.

Last August, the Crown Prince was implicated again in a separate 2018 assassination attempt of exiled Saudi officials residing in Canada, and earlier last week a U.S. report released showing damning evidence of the prince’s role in Khashoggi’s death. In addition, the general instability in Syria and Yemen, as well as a lack of significant domestic reform, continued to high-light the significant blood on hands of Saudi royalty, and some within the Canadian media have had enough. Renewed calls for a complete cessation of military aid and a re-evaluation of our economic and diplomatic ties has rung out in Rideau Hall once again, and a growing share of the wider public is beginning to echo these sentiments.

For now, though, the public shouldn’t expect much, if any, action from the current ruling cabinet. The pandemic and China’s continued detainment of two Canadian citizens, Michael Korvig and Michael Spavor, will likely occupy most of the government’s focus this year, and it’s unlikely that any significant change in Canada will come anytime soon. Thankfully, though, the pursuit of justice isn’t totally screwed. US President Biden is set to take drastic measures to change federal policy towards Saudi belligerence in Yemen, and has already taken the first steps towards implementing change. Saudi Arabia, for its part, seems to have temporarily yielded to Biden’s chastisements for fear of losing its most important ally. As US foreign policy in the Middle East goes, Canada will follow suit.

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