In The Media

Guess who’s coming to dinner? A night in the Saudi embassy

by Peter Mazereeuw (feat. Thomas Juneau)

March 30, 2016

Besieged by criticism in the media of its human rights record, the Saudi government extended an olive branch to select members of the Ottawa press corps last week, inviting them to an exclusive dinner reception for Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion.

Meant to be a good news story, the event was held on March 24 to pay tribute to the Canadian government's efforts to aid Syrian refugees. But the Saudi ambassador couldn't avoid the topic every invited journalist wanted to ask him about: a controversial Saudi arms deal with Canada.

The dinner was officially co-hosted by the six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council: Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain. The Saudi embassy and residence compound on Sussex Drive was the venue, and the small group of reporters were promised rare access to Saudi Ambassador Naif Bin Bandir AlSudairy and his Gulf counterparts.

GCC ambassadors had an announcement to make about Syrian refugees, the reporters were told. None of those reporters had seen the inside of the Saudi embassy before. The embassy doesn't tend to send out press releases or have a chummy relationship with Parliamentary Press Gallery reporters.

The press had been brought in to pass along a message to the Canadian people, said Mr. AlSudairy: a “thank you” to the Canadian government for its work resettling Syrian refugees.  

The thanks came in the form of a cheque for $31,000 to United Way Ottawa from the GCC countries. The cheque was presented just after 5 p.m. in one of the embassy's stone and glass-walled reception rooms after Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson arrived to take part in the ceremony. The ambassadors stood together against a photo backdrop, chatting while they waited for more guests to arrive as the menagerie of staff, press and press handlers milled about quietly.

Public relations for the event were handled by Navigator Ltd., a communications firm with offices in several Canadian cities that brandishes the slogan, “When you can’t afford to lose.” The firm has earned a reputation for crisis management, working for former Ontario attorney general Michael Bryant after he was involved in a collision that killed a cyclist, and more recently former CBC host Jian Ghomeshi.

However, Navigator had only been hired to help the Saudi embassy with the evening’s event, not any sort of crisis management, said Darryl Konynenbelt, a senior consultant with the firm.

The Gulf states have, fairly or unfairly, been criticized in some corners for their response to the Syrian refugee crisis. It’s difficult to measure resettlement by those countries, since none signed onto the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees. A recent UNHCR report did not list any GCC members as having resettled refugees, but a press release from last week’s event says the Gulf countries have accepted more than two million Syrians over the past five years.

The Saudi government has also fallen under renewed criticism in the Canadian press over its human rights record since the previous Conservative government brokered a deal to send armoured made-in-Canada military vehicles, that could be equipped with guns, to the Saudi national guard, and the new Liberal government upheld that decision. National news sources have run a flurry of news stories and opinion pieces, almost daily at times, tearing into the Gulf kingdom for its treatment of women, dissidents and prisoners. The Globe and Mail has repeatedly reported that the country "ranks among 'the worst of the worst' by Freedom House on human rights." The national newspaper reported the Saudi Embassy responded this month after months of silence, criticizing what it called “sensationalized and politicized” coverage of the $15-billion deal and outside attempts to interfere with internal affairs.

The Saudi government is typically “very, very shy in terms of public diplomacy” in Canada, said Thomas Juneau, a professor of Middle East policy at the University of Ottawa and former Middle East analyst for the Department of National Defence. 

The unexpected press event may or may not have been connected to the negative portrayal of the country in connection with the vehicle sale, he said, noting that the Saudi government does support Syrian refugees on “many levels.”

The ambassador said the event was an attempt to show the importance of the Syrian refugee issue, given the large number of Syrians in his country. 

The ambassador said the embassy has held such events from time to time. Mr. Juneau said public diplomacy events are held more often by the Saudi embassy in the United States and elsewhere.

Mr. Dion defended the Liberals' decision to follow through on the arms deal in a speech at the University of Ottawa Tuesday, according to speaking notes for the event. Jobs in Ontario and the “credibility of the government of Canada’s signature” were on the line, he said, and “Riyadh does not care if the equipment comes from a factory in Lima, Ohio, or Sterling Heights, Michigan, rather than one in London, Ontario.”

Mr. Dion and chief of staff Julian Ovens arrived at the Saudi embassy shortly after the cheque presentation, and were received warmly by the ever-smiling Mr. AlSudairy. Mr. Dion’s attendance was a surprise to the press, who were only told the minister would attend after arriving at the embassy themselves. With the guests of honour accounted for—also including Senate Speaker George Furey—Mr. Watson and Mr. AlSudairy led the way to dinner. 

Guests funnelled slowly into a large, square room with a high ceiling. Eight tables adorned in white linen surrounded a swimming pool, with a pair of VIP tables sitting at the back of the room in a two-storey glass alcove. Members of the press were seated at the far side of the room. Diners were treated to a buffet of lamb and rice, salmon, salad, humus, breaded shrimp and a variety of vegetarian dishes.

Some embassies ‘more generous than others’

Mr. Watson was the first of the political class to leave, around six o’clock, and also held the longest scrum, fielding as many questions as reporters could think to ask. It was his first visit to the Saudi embassy as well, he said.

Mr. Watson said he didn’t know if that evening’s events and the donation would change the way Canadians perceived the governments of Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states. 

“My hope is that it acts as a catalyst for other embassies in Ottawa—we have over 95 heads of mission here—to continue to be generous. Some embassies are more generous than others in terms of their reaching out and helping,” he said.

Mr. Dion was next to go, but he did not take any questions from the press. The ambassadors eventually followed, making an effort to personally see off each of their VIP guests, while the Navigator crew shepherded the press into a sitting room for their long-awaited chance to sit down with the Mr. AlSudairy and his GCC counterparts. 

Their guests departed, the ambassadors joined the press in the sitting room, standing together in front of a small fireplace. The ensuing Q&A lasted for about two and a half minutes. Mr. AlSudairy deflected questions about human rights and the arms deal, promising to address those issues on another day. 

With that, the ambassadors dispersed. A family of Syrian refugees was offered up to the press, if they were interested. Mohamad and Shoq—their last name was withheld at the request of their sponsor for the protection of relatives back home—and their four young children had arrived in Ottawa just five weeks ago via Lebanon, their sponsor and interpreter said. Mohamad had a fond impression of the Saudi government thanks to the clothing and food aid he received in Lebanon bearing the stamp of the Saudi government.


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