Saudi-Canada Diplomatic Row Obscures Canada’s Support for the Deadly War on Yemen

Canadian Journalist Anthony Fenton Explains Canada’s Extensive Arms Sales to the Saudi Autocracy

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Story Transcript

DIMITRI LASCARIS: This is Dimitri Lascaris, reporting for The Real News from Montreal, Canada.

As The Real News has previously reported, Saudi Arabia and Canada are locked in a major diplomatic row. The row began on August 2, 2018 when Canada’s Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland stated on her Twitter feed that she was, quote, very alarmed to learn that Samar Badawi, Raif Badawi’s sister, has been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia; 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.

Badawi, for those of you who do not know, is a Saudi Arabian human rights activist. She and her father, who physically abused her for 15 years, filed court cases against each other several years ago. Badawi’s father accused his daughter of disobedience under the Saudi Arabian male guardianship system, and she charged her father, who had refused to allow her to marry, with making it hard or impossible for her to marry according to Islamic jurisprudence. Saudi authorities imprisoned Samar Badawi in 2010, but a Saudi court later ruled in her favor. She was then released, and her male guardianship was transferred to an uncle. Now Saudi authorities have arrested her yet again.

After Chrystia Freeland’s tweet of August 2, the Saudi autocracy expelled Canada’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia and recalled its own ambassador from Canada. On August 5, the Saudi foreign ministry issued a statement expressing its disbelief at Canada’s negative unfounded comment in that statement. It also described the mild criticism of the Canadian government as a “blatant interference in the kingdom’s domestic affairs.” And it announced that it had frozen all new trade and investment transactions between Canada and Saudi Arabia. Then on August 9, the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen bombed a school bus, killing dozens of civilians, including 29 children. International human rights groups were outraged by this massacre. One of those groups, Save the Children Canada, called on Chrystia Freeland to condemn the massacre, and pointedly referred to her statement after the expulsion of Canada’s ambassador from Saudi Arabia that, quote, Canada will always defend human rights.

Nonetheless, the Twitter feeds of Chrystia Freeland and Canada’s Foreign Ministry do not contain, as of this day, a hint of criticism of the Saudi led coalition’s massacre of Yemeni children. On the contrary, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau just announced that Canada will continue to engage with Saudi Arabia. Trudeau made this statement shortly after former Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird went on Saudi state TV over this past weekend to criticize his own government’s approach to Saudi Arabia.

Now here to discuss all of this with us is Anthony Fenton. Anthony is a Canadian independent print and radio journalist and writer. He’s been a regular contributor to The Dominion and Z Communications, and is currently a doctoral student at York University. He joins us today from Vancouver, Canada. Thanks very much for joining us, Anthony.

ANTHONY FENTON: Thanks for having me on.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: So Anthony, I want to start with what many in the human rights community regard as the elephant in the room in Saudi-Canada relations; namely, the sale of Canadian-made arms to Saudi Arabia. Could you summarize for us the extent and nature of those arms sales?

ANTHONY FENTON: Sure. The one that most people would be familiar with is the deal that was announced in February of 2014 for upwards of $15 billion; a contract signed between the state arm Canadian Commercial Corporation and the government of Saudi Arabia for at least 900 light armored vehicles, heavily weaponized armored vehicles, that will be supplied principally to the Saudi Arabian National Guard.

This is just the latest in a long series of similar contracts dating back to the early 1980s. There was a lot of controversy that ensued. Not immediately, but over the next, the course of the next year or so. And it’s sort of been either the alternating between a front and back burner issue in the Canadian media since then. Because you’ve had this war on Yemen going on three and a half years now, which has involved- although you wouldn’t know it from Canadian media coverage, for the most part- has involved these light armored vehicles. These, this new order, this new contract, vehicles have begun shipping to Saudi Arabia. They’re shipped out of Port St. John as of this point. In fact, just this week a Saudi cargo ship was originally slated to arrive at Port St. John just this past couple days and pick up the latest batch of light armored vehicles. But sometime between July 9 and July 23 that was postponed until September, for unknown reasons. But they do continue to ship them.

And this is just, however, one of a number of other arms deals that Canada has engaged in with not only Saudi Arabia, but its other Gulf partners such as the United Arab Emirates and other principal belligerents in the war on Yemen, as well as Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman. And in any case, there was a number of smaller Canadian companies that remarked on Twitter today, for example, Pratt & Whitney Canada has a number of contracts. It produces the engines for all the military training aircraft for the Royal Saudi Air Force. It’s involved in a major deal to, in conjunction with a Ukrainian company Antonov, to engage in a joint venture with the Saudi military to produce these new military cargo jets. Pratt & Whitney Canada, as well as other companies, such as a CMC Esterline. CMC stands for Marconi, which is one of the Canadian companies that goes, has one of the longest histories in dealing with Saudi Arabia, going back several decades.

There are other companies like Wescam, L3 Wescam, based in Burlington, Ontario, who provide these targeting systems, these cameras. These high, you know, high-tech cameras to attach to drones, that they attach to counterinsurgency aircraft, that are on the Apache helicopters. And they’ve done so much business in the Middle East that they’ve had to open, like, regional or local service centers because, I’m assuming, because of the increased tempo of use of these kinds of components by the Saudi military in this war in Yemen. And so these, these are some of the deals. The Canadian government has supported the renewed vigor of the Canadian arms industry to enter this market, of course, with wars brewing in the region for several years now. But Canadian companies have increased their presence the arms bazaars such as IDEX in Abu Dhabi, among numerous others, over recent years.

And again, it has, has had the wholehearted support from the Canadian governments, going from Harper to the Trudeau government right now. Although some commentators are saying that maybe Canadian-Saudi relations have cooled off in the last few years; or, as speculated by former Defense Minister Peter MacKay, that maybe the Trudeau government was looking for a way out of this light armored vehicle sale. I could say it’s, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Canadian officials regularly go down to Saudi Arabia to service their customer General Dynamics, who have offices there. Members of the Saudi forces have come, have been brought to Canada for training on these new platforms. And you know, in many ways, right up to this point when this blowout happened, as far as anyone knows it was business as usual. All full speed ahead with these types of arms deals.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: So you know, the debate is often around have these arms been used to commit human rights abuses. This debate, I must tell you, I’d like you to comment on this, strikes me as rather fanciful, because by any rational measure the Saudi autocracy is a profoundly antidemocratic and repressive regime, and manages to maintain power and has managed to do so over a period of years through the use of force. So any time you sell weapons, particularly weapons that protect members of the National Guard, whose ultimate loyalty, one would imagine, is to the Saudi autocracy and preserving its power, you’re necessarily- I mean, you’re in effect you’re enabling that regime to remain in power by giving it the arms it needs to repress dissent within the domestic population. So it’s, it’s almost ridiculous to say, to even ask the question whether or not these arms are playing a role in human rights abuses. If you sell arms to a Saudi regime like this, aren’t you necessarily facilitating human rights abuses, at least indirectly?

ANTHONY FENTON: Yeah, I mean, I agree with your line of thinking there. Now, let’s bear in mind that it was one year, almost exactly one year to the day when this crisis erupted, that a different Canadian company’s armored vehicles were captured on video and in still images as part of this siege of Awamiya, the neighborhood in Qatif region in the eastern province of Saudi Arabia. That company was Terradyne Armored Vehicles. They’re based in Newmarket. They were originally owned by Magna International, Frank Stronach’s multibillion dollar autoparts empire. But then they were spun off, and they’re now privately owned.

But upwards of hundreds of these vehicles have been sold to the Saudi Ministry of Interior since 2014. And then I’ve been tracking them since they first appeared in Yemen in 2016 on the ground. And it was only a matter of time before we saw them, as advertised by the Saudi special emergency forces, that they would appear in a situation like this where they did in July of last year. And at the time, let’s also remember that this caused an uproar in the Canadian media. There was a lot of confusion; a lot of people thought that these were the light armored vehicles that everyone was talking about. But no, here is this other significant order of tactical armored vehicles the Saudis had placed used in this brutal operation in Awamiya. An investigation was launched by Chrystia Freeland. But that investigation, what it yielded, which, kind of returning to my original point, was that they they used and consulted with Saudi human rights organizations and security, parts of the security apparatus, to determine that these Canadian armed vehicles weren’t, in fact, used to abuse Saudi Arabians inside of Saudi Arabia, and they were used to exonerate and resume the export of these vehicles.

It’s also the case that the media coverage of the General Dynamic LAVs as they appeared in Yemen has been very scant. Only on one occasion was there an article in the Globe & Mail where they said, look, the General Dynamic LAVs are actually being used in the war in Yemen. Later on, the narrative was changed following some testimony in, I believe it’s one of the standing committees in Canada, by a Human Rights Watch reporter who was making this distinction, well, if those light armored vehicles are being used by the Yemenis, as they might, being given by Saudi Arabia to Yemeni forces, well, that might be a cause of concern. And there’d kind of been this complacency with the Canadian government lying, which was seen in the memo that Stephane Dion signed in April 2016 that was revealed by the courts through the constitutional law professor Daniel Turp’s action against the Canadian government in his attempt to squash these exports of arms that revealed that they’re boasting, basically, that will these LAVs can be useful to the Saudi Arabians in Yemen.

So Canada is OK, to your original point earlier, that there has been a silence from Freeland and the Canadian Foreign Affairs account on the question of Saudi-led atrocities in Yemen, because Canada has backed this war in Yemen, unequivocally almost, since it began in 2015. And so yes, to answer your question. Selling them arms, whether they’re suppressing internal dissent, any internal threats to the Saudi royal family, monarchy, or whether it’s projecting their force into countries like Yemen, we can assume that they’re being used in nefarious ways.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: And lastly, Anthony, briefly, what do you make of this claim that Canada is interfering in Saudi Arabia’s internal affairs? Isn’t that precisely what Saudi Arabia is doing in Yemen, and hasn’t it engaged in at least some level of interference in the internal affairs of other states in the Gulf region?

ANTHONY FENTON: Absolutely. Of course, it’s a very hypocritical statement on its face. What they’re really saying is don’t-. And one thing you may, you may not have mentioned there in the intro is that what might have really ticked them off, according to at least one of the Saudi spokespeople who’s been rolled out to defend the Saudi side of this equation; I believe the Arabia foundation, that what they really didn’t like was how the Canadian Embassy in Saudi Arabia repeated this tweet in Arabic. So they were like, the narrative was how dare you speak to us in our own language, you know, making such demands. But yes, it’s absolutely hypocritical on the face of it. Canada interferes with other countries. Everybody’s interfering with other countries.

So to base your argument on that, which, you know, kind of makes you wonder if that really was the basis of this, this blow up. I mean, who knows? There could be other reasons behind this. Nobody’s mentioned, for example, how there were a couple of high-level Canadian delegations to Qatar. They weren’t explicitly endorsed by the Canadian government, but they were well aware of it, and sort of supported it quietly when they were on the ground there. But Saudi Arabia probably didn’t like that Canadian MP Boris Wrzesnewskyj was demanding that the Qatari media, that Saudi Arabia and the UAE end their blockade of Qatar.

And there is even a report, oddly enough- I know we’re short on time. But late last year there was a report supposedly citing unnamed sources in the embassy in Riyadh that Saudi Arabia was angry with Canada and had threatened to cut economic ties over opposition that Canada had taken in the United Nations Human Rights Council on Yemen. There was a brief period there where Canada did work with the Netherlands to try to get there to be an independent investigation into war crimes in Yemen. This was watered down, ultimately didn’t really succeed. But it actually could be the case, even though we have this contradictory contradictory situation where Canada has in many other way supported the war in Yemen, where they did in this one instance possibly raise the ire of Saudi Arabia. It’s possible that this whole blowup was kind of being planned, and that they just pulled the trigger on it when these tweets came out. That’s [approximately how I see it].

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Well, we’ve been talking to Anthony Fenton about the diplomatic row between Canada and Saudi Arabia. Thanks very much for joining us today, Anthony.

ANTHONY FENTON: Thanks so much.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: And this is Dimitri Lascaris from The Real News Network.