Canada’s Saudi Arms Sales: “Don’t Be a Sucker!”

The sale of weaponized Light Armoured Vehicles (LAVs) to Saudi Arabia has raised a heated debate in Canada, pitting so-called realists against people who expect trade to be conducted according to a minimum set of moral values. Outgoing Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s swan song was the $15-billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia, which Harper boasted would provide 3,000 jobs.

A poll by Nanos Research showed that 60% of Canadians feel it is important to ensure arms go only to countries “that respect human rights” vs providing jobs to a few Canadians. The same poll showed that 86% hold a negative or somewhat negative view of Saudi Arabia.

The proposed sale is now being protested in a class action law suit by University of Montreal professor Daniel Turp. Turp and his group’s challenge, Operation Armoured Rights, points to how poorly Saudi Arabia treats its own citizens, their horrific bombing campaign in Yemen, and their support for Wahhabi extremists in the Syrian insurgency.

The Quebec and Federal Court challenges argue that the Canadian government is violating its own arms-export rules by permitting the armoured vehicles to go to Saudi Arabia. The law states shipments cannot proceed “unless it can be demonstrated there is no reasonable risk that the goods might be used against the civilian population.”

Despite the legal challenge, Canadian Foreign Minister Stephane Dion forged on with the sale. He did bow to public pressure to reveal the contents of the special government report on Saudi human rights. The report criticized the Saudis, but insisted there is no possibility of the vehicles being used against Saudi citizens.

Defending a ‘done deal’ 

Canadian Conservative icon Conrad Black makes the case for the sale forcefully in Canada’s leading Conservative mouthpiece the National Post.

* The Saudis are our allies.

What can that possibly mean? Aren’t allies those who share your positions on relevant issues? Who work towards the same goals? How can an authoritarian monarchy, draped in a rigid vision of Islam, share our interests? Canadians were shocked in January when 47 Saudis were executed, mostly public beheadings, including the leading Shia imam, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.

* With friends like these, who needs enemies?

Okay, that’s a weak argument. How about Iranophobe Black’s second blast: “The Saudis are less dangerous and hostile to the West than their Iranian rivals, and the Saudis are effectively combatting Iranian surrogates mentioned above”.

Let’s deconstruct this argument. Who is causing the problems now in the region? ISIS and its spin-offs al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham. If it wasn’t for Saudi Arabia, there would be no ISIS. If there was no ISIS, there would be no Syrian refugee crisis. If there was no refugee crisis, the EU wouldn’t be disintegrating. Where are the nefarious “Iranian rivals” in this plot?

The same suspect logic was used to justify the US-Saudi support for ISIS forerunners in Afghanistan in 1979, which led to 9/11 and the current chaos throughout the region. Iran played no part in this devil’s pact.

A logical policy would be to not support such terrorists. Not to invade and bomb other countries. Not to waste billions on arms. Rather, to use one’s oil wealth to help one’s citizens, and build a strong economy. But countries that try to do this, say, Bolivia or Iran, face only unremitting hostility from the US and Saudi Arabia.

* According to Conrad Black, we must help Saudi Arabia as an ally in the fight against Iranian expansion and anti-Western terrorism.

So where is “Iranian expansion”? Nowhere, as there is none. Helping the Syrian government maintain order, and helping Palestinians in the David-and-Goliath struggle against Israel, are not “expansion”.

There are more troublesome dots to connect here. Saudi Arabia has now joined in the US-led airstrikes in Syria against ISIS, al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham, the latter two being Saudi ‘allies’ in Syria. So British planes in the Saudi Air Force, armed with US bombs, are now helping destroy Saudi allies. I can hear al-Nusra Front’s plaint, ‘With friends like these …’

How to explain this? According to Stephane Lacroix, assistant professor of Political Science at Sciences Po in Paris, “I think the Saudis are scared. They are not taking ISIS lightly, because they are seeing this group developing quickly on their borders.” He said there are indications that ISIS rhetoric could be attracting significant support within Saudi Arabia’s borders. 92% of Saudis view ISIS as “compatible with the values of Islam and Sharia.”

Which brings us to the real purpose of Canada’s production of armoured vehicles. LAVs were what the Saudis used in Bahrain to pacify the thousands of citizens protesting their unpopular King Hamad al-Khalifa, who is a Sunni imperial hangover in a population where 75% are Shia. The Saudis also used these armoured vehicles to break up Shia demonstrations at home.

Despite loud denials both by Canada’s Foreign Minister Stephen Dion and Saudi officials, the combat vehicles with machine guns and anti-tank cannons are clearly intended to ‘protect’ the oppressive kingdom’s monarchy from internal threats.

* It is a chance to show Canada as an reputable actor on the world stage.

How does providing arms to a disreputable actor do this? Canadian geopolitical interests are tied to the US in its struggle to maintain world hegemony. There is no room for “reputable actors” here. Isn’t it more a case of Canada showing it has no moral backbone, can be easily bought off, is just another postmodern US puppet?

* What about job creation?

Yes, 3,000 jobs. For a few years. Kind of expensive as a job creation program. The Brits are much better at spinning lucrative contracts with the Saudis. Al Yamamah (The Dove) is the name of a series of a record arms sales by Great Britain to Saudi Arabia, paid for by 600,000 barrels of oil per day. The aerospace BAE Systems said in 2005 that BAE had earned £43 billion in 20 years from the contracts and that it could earn £40 billion more. Besides thousands of high tech jobs in Britain, 5,000 Brits work in Saudi Arabia on training pilots and maintaining the hardware.

The US specializes in providing the bombs that the British planes drop. The main US partners in the latest billion dollar contract are Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, both currently mired in scandal, as the main funders of the Centre for Security Policy, a Washington-based think tank established to “promote US national security”, running campaigns like “Shariah: The Threat to America” and “Jihadists in Our Own Backyard”.

Just to connect these dots, that means that Raytheon et al reap billions of dollars producing bombs for the Muslim Saudis, at the same time publicly labeling them as part of the enemy. A bizarre job creation scheme.

Real reason

So the only justification for the arms sale is purely cynical: the US and Brits are doing it, with no apparent protest from their human rights crowd. So why should Canadian business miss out on the profits? We’re all ‘allies’ after all.

Well, perhaps because Canadians still have some sense of shame.

But not the pious Canadian Liberals. In another bizarre twist, the Saudi Embassy is hosting “Saudi Cultural Days” on the lawn of Parliament Hill May 18–21, an embarrassing attempt at damage control, complete with folk songs and dance (the only kind allowed in the austere kingdom). The celebrations will include exhibits on henna design, music, Arab cuisine and “traditional costume”.

Eric Walberg is a journalist who worked in Uzbekistan and is now writing for Al-Ahram Weekly in Cairo. He is the author of From Postmodernism to Postsecularism and Postmodern Imperialism. His most recent book is Islamic Resistance to Imperialism. Read other articles by Eric, or visit Eric's website.