By Scott Costen
TWO years after becoming embroiled in a diplomatic quarrel, Canada and Saudi Arabia continue to exchange significant amounts of oil and arms.
“The Saudis are being very selective in the application of their own decrees,” Vancouver-based researcher and PhD candidate Anthony Fenton told Redaction Politics. “If they happen to need something, and they can only get it from Canada, they’re happy to do so.”
Because of its repressive human rights posture and ongoing involvement in the Yemen Civil War, Saudi Arabia needs armoured vehicles.
That’s why, despite imposing trade and investment restrictions on Canada the past two years, it hasn’t cancelled a $14-billion armoured vehicle contract with General Dynamics Land Systems in London, Ontario.
According to the Canadian International Merchandise Trade (CIMT) database, Canada exported $2.37 billion worth of armoured vehicles and parts to Saudi Arabia in 2019.
That same year, Canada imported $3.08 billion worth of Saudi oil.
Fenton believes the diplomatic dispute is widely misunderstood and that its underlying cause has gone largely unreported.
“The rift, at the time, was a real head-scratcher,” he said. “I didn’t quite accept the narrative.”
The feud appeared to be caused by a tweet from Canadian foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland about two jailed Saudi dissidents.
“Very alarmed to learn that Samar Badawi, Raif Badawi’s sister, has been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia,” Freeland, now deputy prime minister, tweeted two years ago.
“Canada stands together with the Badawi family in this difficult time, and we continue to strongly call for the release of both Raif and Samar Badawi.”
The Canadian embassy in Riyadh tweeted the same message in Arabic a few days later, after which the Saudi foreign affairs ministry condemned Freeland’s statement as “a major, unacceptable affront to the Kingdom’s laws and judicial process, as well as a violation of the Kingdom’s sovereignty.”
The Canadian ambassador to Saudi Arabia was declared persona-non-grata and given 24 hours to leave the country.
New trade and investment deals between the two countries were suspended, the Saudi envoy to Ottawa was recalled, and scholarships for Saudi nationals studying in Canada were revoked.
Fenton suspects the Saudi backlash was prompted by something much more serious than an inflammatory tweet.
“We’re just finally getting the details about this exiled former right-hand man to the one-time crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef, Dr. Saad al-Jabri, who’s a Saudi in exile in Canada,” he said.
“This guy, who’s been a close ally of western intelligence agencies, including Canada’s, had been living in Canada since 2017,” Fenton said.
“Weeks before the rift happened in August 2018, Interpol had basically torn up the Saudi request to have al-Jabri extradited back to Saudi Arabia from Canada.”
Fenton believes al-Jabri’s residency in Canada caused the dispute.
“We still don’t have the smoking gun,” he admits. “But it becomes clearer and clearer that they were basically using the first available opportunity to lash back at Canada for not complying with their wishes to have al-Jabri shipped back to Saudi Arabia.”
In addition to shipping armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia, Canada sends a large, although dwindling, number of rifles to the kingdom.
The CIMT database shows the country exported more than $6.02 million worth of rifles to Riyadh in 2019, a significant decline compared to the $17.64 million sent the previous year.
Numerous videos and still photographs have emerged that appear to show Canadian-made armoured vehicles and rifles being used in the bloody conflict in Yemen.
John Babcock, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, did not address a specific question from Redaction Politics about Canadian-made arms in Yemen.
“Canada continues to call for a full ceasefire in Yemen,” he said in an email. “We are strong supporters of peace talks in Yemen and call on all parties to fully implement their commitments.”
Babcock said Canada has provided more than $180 million in humanitarian funding to the people of Yemen and “led a motion mandating the UN Human Rights Commissioner to send investigators to Yemen to investigate crimes against humanity.”
Fenton disputes the notion Canada is a force for good in the region.
“Canada’s hands are absolutely covered in blood,” he said, pointing to the country’s provision of arms and its “unqualified political support for the Saudi coalition.”
That political support began with former prime minister Stephen Harper’s government and has continued under Justin Trudeau’s administration, he said.
Fenton has spent seven years studying and documenting Canada’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council countries.
“From 2013 until today, it’s been non-stop, wall-to-wall, 24/7 research into Canada and Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states,” he said.
He posts his findings and thoughts on his Twitter feed, which has become a must-follow for fellow academics, journalists, and human rights activists.
Though he sometimes feels tempted to get off social media, he recognizes his Twitter account has become a valuable resource on a complex and important topic.
“It’s almost for posterity to a certain degree,” he said. “At least it’s there for somebody to go back to.”
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