The diplomatic crisis between Canada and Saudi Arabia is around a month old. It blew up after a Canadian official criticised the poor human rights record of Saudi Arabia in a tweet and called on the Saudi authorities to end their arbitrary treatment of activists. The escalation and reaction of the Saudis suggest that the crisis has not yet reached its climax, despite the fact that Riyadh has withdrawn thousands of students studying in Canada and transferred patients receiving treatment in Canadian hospitals. It did so hoping to harm the Canadian economy and send a message to anyone else who might be thinking of criticising the Kingdom.
However, reliable sources say that the government in Riyadh has viewed the issue as an opportunity to cancel contracts it has signed with the Canadian government and is unable to pay for because of the economic difficulties it is suffering as a result of Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman's reckless policies and waste of large amounts of money on deals with US President Donald Trump. What's more, there are leaks in diplomatic circles that Saudi Arabia is seriously thinking about cancelling the weapons deal signed with Canada in 2014 that was mired in controversy.
This is a complicated issue because the former Canadian government signed it, under Stephen Harper, and there have questions about how consistent it is with the constitution, which bans the sale of weapons to a country that violates human rights. The current Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, has had to deal with a fait accompli, completing the $12 billion deal over 15 years. According to him, his country's sale of armoured personnel carriers to Riyadh conformed to "Canadian national interests and did not violate human rights." He told a meeting in the Canadian parliament, "Permits are only approved if the exports are consistent with our foreign and defence policies, including human rights. Our approach fully meets our national obligations and Canadian laws."
In 2015, Canadian newspapers revealed details of the deal between Riyadh and Ottawa, and the following year Trudeau said that his government would not cancel it as it had already come into effect. Stories were leaked about Saudi Arabia receiving some of the weapons, as well as using some of the vehicles for repressive operations in the Qatif area.
Whenever the issue was raised, the finger of blame was directed at Canada, which is expected to act like countries such as Norway and uphold and respect human rights, and so cancel the deal. It remained a source of embarrassment for the Canadian government until the current diplomatic crisis, during which the situation has shifted somewhat due to Saudi Arabia's disproportionate response to a tweet criticising the measures taken against human rights activists. Some of the people in question sought and were granted political asylum in Canada; the wife and children of the blogger Raif Badawi, for example. He is behind bars in Saudi Arabia for, it is alleged, insulting the religion of Islam.
The Saudi reaction was a surprise to many people. Bin Salman, it is said, has run out of money after signing deals under pressure from the US and Britain in exchange for their support when his father dies and he is set to be crowned King. That is why the funds are drying up in Riyadh. Saudi Arabia cancelled a large military deal with Ankara, and disregarded its demand to take delivery of four warships built in Turkey, after Bin Salman completed a major deal with the US during Trump's visit to the Kingdom in May last year. Such is the reality of Saudi Arabia these days that this scenario is nothing new, and we should not be surprised by anything as Ottawa and Riyadh weigh up the cost of weapons and human rights.
This article first appeared in Arabic on Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on 30 August 2018
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.