The Saudi arms deal and the devil we know



by Barry Cooper

May 20, 2016

The last issue of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute’s quarterly contained several articles dealing with Canada’s reputation in the world and the new government’s efforts to shape that reputation to conform to their national vision. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s confident declaration that “Canada is back” signaled a return to multilateralism, UN peacekeeping, bridge-building and other morally uplifting policies.

Certainly, UN-led multilateralism figures prominently in the Trudeau government’s statements on climate change, refugees and the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The new tone may even lead to a non-permanent seat on the Security Council.

That new tone has seen one glaring exception: Canada said ‘yes’ to the arms deal with Saudi Arabia when the multilateralists and peacekeeping fans would have much preferred a ‘no’.

The Saudi arms contract is worth an estimated $15 billion and 3,000 long-term jobs. It provides for the delivery of some 700-plus light armoured combat vehicles (LAVs) to the Saudi Arabian National Guard (SANG). The turreted weapons are supplied by a Belgian firm that reportedly has developed a system to reduce recoil on cannons, thus allowing higher-calibre weapons to be installed on relatively light hulls. The LAVs also may be equipped with a 25mm. chain gun and standard, smaller-calibre machine guns.

These details matter because of a provision in Canadian export-control laws: Weapons are not to be exported when the buyer might use them against civilian populations. Canada’s customer, SANG, is charged with protecting the Saudi royals and defending the regime against internal threats. If necessary, they certainly would use the LAVs against civilians.

This inconvenient truth has put the government in a bind. At first, the minister responsible, Stéphane Dion, said there was an “important difference” between approving a contract and refusing to cancel an existing one. But he approved the export permits all on his own. Then, Mr. Dion said Canada needs to be “respected on the world stage by keeping our word.” That same day, Michael Byers declared that permitting the sale would damage “rather than enhance Canada’s reputation” and “could even cost Canada a seat on the UN Security Council.”

Unfortunately, a debate about morality, respect and reputation is far removed from the reality of Middle Eastern politics, and ignores Canadian interests in one of the most unstable regions in the world.

In the Mid-Eastern context, the Saudis are a source of stability. Despite the region’s apparent hunger for democracy, exemplified by the Arab Spring, it remains easy for monarchs to retain power. That they rely on oppressive security services to do so is a given, as it is for ruling military officers and other assorted regional tyrants. But the monarchs, unlike the other security bosses, are identified with the countries they rule. The legitimacy of this “old money,” as Robert Kaplan called the sultans and kings, is the source of their stability.

Even so, the Saudis have some long-term geopolitical challenges. They do not rule all of Arabia. Yemen, once run by a typical strong man, is a conflict zone. The Hijaz along the Red Sea and Oman on the Gulf are a long way from the up-country homeland of the House of Saud, the Najd. Indeed, compared to the isolated Najd, the coastal littoral is almost cosmopolitan.

One conclusion is obvious: By equipping the SANG with some useful kit, Canada sustains regional stability, which is as much in the long-term interests of the Saudis as it is of Canadians.

Canadians are mature enough to understand why a stable and repressive regime is preferable to an unstable and murderous one, which leads to a second conclusion: Repealing Canada’s moralizing and hypocritical export controls would be geopolitically realistic.

Image: Canadian Army

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