How Canada justifies doing business with Saudi Arabia

Can our moral authority really be purchased for a few thousands jobs in southwestern Ontario?

Canada's socalled jeeps

One of Canada’s so called “jeeps”

Canada’s Liberal foreign affairs minister says there’s no point in cancelling a $15-billion contract to sell combat vehicles to the notoriously repressive regime in Saudi Arabia because someone else will just step up to take over.

That’s an argument that can be used to justify pretty much every horror imaginable, from the sale of land mines to chemical weapons.  In this case, it’s justifying the production of a thousand or more armoured vehicles for the Saudi National Guard, the government agency mandated to deal with internal threats, i.e. popular unrest, and protecting the royal family.

The details of the contract are a closely guarded secret, but we know that a Belgian subcontractor has been hired by the Canadian manufacturer — General Dynamics in London, Ont. — to pimp at least 700 of the Saudi rides with gun turret weapons systems for both medium calibre ammunition and armour-piercing 105-mm shells.

Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion
Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion

The Saudis, says Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion, have promised they won’t use the weapons on civilians, but that makes you wonder why the Saudis need a few hundred armoured vehicles to take the royals out for a little ibex hunting.

And the punishment Dion says the Saudis would suffer if it turns out they were lying? “That would put future contracts in danger,” he told the Globe and Mail in January.

I’m sure that threat is keeping King Salman awake at night, rather than the possibility of a popular uprising, Shia revolts, Sunni extremists or coup attempts by rivals among the 2,000 most powerful titans of the 15,000-member House of Saud royal family.


The sight of these Canadian “jeeps” — as Justin Trudeau so inaptly and ineptly described them during the election campaign — may well be the last thing many Saudi citizens see once they roll off the assembly line and into the streets. How many, we can’t possibly predict, but even if we take the minimum estimate for the number of vehicles, by the time they have reached a modest average of three killings apiece, the body count will have well exceeded the 2,000 Canadian jobs that Dion says will be lost if the contract is cancelled.


Stephen Harper with the late former king Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz in 2010

Because Canadian jobs not Saudi deaths is of course the real motivator for the Liberal government’s refusal to repudiate a deal brokered under the Harper Tory government. Dion also cites financial penalties included in the contract‚ but refuses to say how much that would cost. And then there’s the old argument we’ve heard a million times to justify doing business with repressive regime: Dion says that shunning the Saudis would make it difficult to exert a positive influence on their human rights policies.

“Hey, thanks for the jeeps, Canada! What’s that? Oh, sure, free elections and a free press? Why didn’t you say so? We’ll just get these pesky executions out of the way and we’ll get right on that.”

A country that has earned its way onto Freedom House’s “Worst of the Worst” list of the world’s most repressive societies is not going to switch course because one of its minor military contract partners offers a “pretty please” or two. It will instead take a major international effort from countries ready to make their own sacrifices to show solidarity with Saudi citizens denied basic human rights, countries like Holland and Sweden, which have renounced all military contracts with Riyadh.

Even the European Parliament has called on member states like Britain and France to embargo the sale of arms to the Saudis in the wake of massive civilian deaths blamed on the Saudi intervention in neighbouring Yemen.

The argument that maintaining friendly commercial relations will aid diplomacy — even when those transactions involve the sale of deadly military hardware —  also flies in the face of Dion’s contention that there’s no point in cancelling the deal because Canada can easily be replaced on the list of Saudi suppliers. In advancing this argument, he’s already conceding that the Saudis hold all the leverage and that we’re nothing but a bit player.

And we’re destined to remain a bit player —a country whose moral authority can be purchased for a few thousands jobs in southwestern Ontario — as long as the Liberal government remains a willing collaborator in a contract whose sole purpose is the continued oppression of the Saudi people.  ■

Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear on Cult MTL every week. You can contact him by Email or follow him on Twitter.