In The Media

Trudeau may be using Saudi visit to shake off taint of arms deal

by Amanda Connolly (feat. Ferry de Kerchove)

November 2, 2016

While dialogue about human rights with countries like Saudia Arabia is never a bad thing, foreign policy experts say the government is probably particularly keen to make a point of promoting meetings Wednesday and Thursday between Canadian officials and a visiting Saudi official in light of the controversial decision not to cancel the sale of $15 billion worth of armed vehicles to the serial human rights abuser.

“I do want to underscore that, yes, it is a positive, useful thing but one cannot resist saying it’s also very nice to compensate given what we’ve done,” said Ferry de Kerckhove, former high commissioner and ambassador to Pakistan, Indonesia and Egypt. “I think it’s a bit of a clean-up operation like a ninth-inning pitcher in baseball, but there’s also something that I think is worthwhile.”

In a press release Wednesday, the government announced Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion, International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau and Status of Women Minister Patty Hajdu would hold meetings to discuss human rights with Bandar Bin Mohhamed Al-Aiban, president of the Saudi human rights commission, during a visit by him to Ottawa this week.

One meeting, held Wednesday by Bibeau and Hajdu, was to focus on “the importance of women and girls as powerful agents for change,” according to the press release.

The other, hosted on Thursday by Dion, will “further engage Saudia Arbaiba in an open dialogue on a full range of human rights issues, including on the case of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi,” while a roundtable hosted by Dion that same day will see Al-Aiban as a “special guest” as civil society leaders talk about human rights, inclusion and diversity.

The announcement comes less than a week after Saudi Arabia won another term on the United Nations Human Rights Council, which essentially gives it the power to block investigations into its own activities. It also comes in the midst of a vicious U.S.-backed bombing campaign against Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen that has left half the country on the brink of famine.

While Canada is not directly involved in that war, there have been concerns expressed over how the light-armoured vehicles being sold to Saudi Arabia could be used to crack down on dissent, given there is evidence similar vehicles were used to do exactly that during the Arab Spring.

The current deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin-Salman, is second in line to the throne behind the 57-year-old crown prince and his own father, King Salman, who took the throne in early 2015.

Deciphering the dynamics of the Saudi royal family has been likened by some to a hall of mirrors, but tensions triggered by the rise in prominence of the deputy crown prince and his allies, along with his rapid consolidation of power in the kingdom and willingness to loosen social restrictions, have sparked rumours of a possible rivalry for the throne between him and the current crown prince.

De Kerckhove, who chaired the first Canada-China symposium on human rights at Harrison Hot Springs in 1996 and again during his posting to Indonesia, pointed to that dynamic in cautioning against the expectation of any kind of rapid change.

“In fact, [King] Salman today does want to move but is hampered … he cannot be outflanked from the left, from the right or from the centre, so the progress is very slow,” he said. “I don’t want to dismiss it, I think there’s a very typical Liberal approach to it, but there’s also the idea of looking good after the sale of $15 billion worth of the so-called Jeeps that are actually armoured.

Jez Littlewood, an assistant professor of international relations at Carleton University, said expecting any concrete change to come from talks like these would be unrealistic.

However, he noted that doesn’t mean it isn’t still important to keep the channels of communication open.

“Dialogue very rarely has negative implications and it is no surprise the issues are on the table,” he said. “I do not think it is going to prompt immediate change … but I doubt anyone thinks that. It is about dialogue.”

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