Why is Canada making arms deals with the Saudis?

The Conservative and Liberal governments alike are ready to make deals with the human-rights-abusing nation

Saudi special security forces show their skills during a military parade at a base near Mount Arafat, southeast of the holy city of Mecca, on November 22, 2009. Saudi Arabia's Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz said the kingdom hopes not to have to "resort to force" to maintain security for the hajj, in a reference to worries Iranian pilgrims may demonstrate. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from across the globe have gathered in the country to perform the pilgrimage in the holy Muslim cities of Mecca and Medina. (Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images)

Saudi special security forces show their skills during a military parade at a base near Mount Arafat, southeast of the holy city of Mecca, on November 22, 2009.  (Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images)

Canada’s new Liberal government is learning that righteous indignation regarding foreign policy is easier out of office than in.

A federal Crown corporation under Canada’s previous Conservative government brokered a $15-billion deal to sell weaponized armoured vehicles that will be manufactured by General Dynamics Land Systems in London, Ont., to Saudi Arabia’s National Guard. After the deal was announced in 2014, Gerald Butts, principal adviser to Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, took to Twitter to pour scorn on the Conservatives. “Principled foreign policy indeed,” he wrote while retweeting a post that compared Saudi Arabia to the so-called Islamic State terrorist group. Butts remained Trudeau’s chief adviser after the election.

Roland Paris, then a professor at the University of Ottawa and now a senior adviser to Trudeau on foreign policy, told the CBC last fall that because we didn’t know whether Canada had obtained assurances from the Saudis that they wouldn’t use arms against civilians, “we’ve allowed an arms sale to trump human rights.”

The Liberals are now letting the arms deal go ahead, with explanations that have shifted from Trudeau’s claim that the cannon-mounted machines are just “jeeps” to Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion’s statement that Canada’s allies are selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, too.

Dion has reportedly said the Saudis have committed not to use the vehicles against civilians, but the department of Global Affairs Canada could not, by the time this article went to press, provide Maclean’s with details about those alleged assurances—which in any case would be next to meaningless. What government has ever said it plans to kill innocent civilians? The fact remains that the vehicles are going to a country with a horrendous human rights record and will be used by its National Guard, which is tasked with protecting against internal threats.

The Conservatives now say the government should publicize its assessment, if it has conducted one, of what the arms deal will mean for human rights in Saudi Arabia—something the Tories refused to do while in office.

Lost in all this posturing is the question of exactly what sort of relationship Canada has with the Saudi kingdom, and why it is seeking to deepen its commercial aspects. Speaking to the CBC, Canada’s former foreign minister John Baird said Saudi Arabia and Canada don’t share many values but have common interests. A list of these would include: opposition to Iran; support—muted in Saudi Arabia’s case—for Israel; a stable global oil market; and, ostensibly, opposition to terrorist outfits such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State. Saudi Arabia’s ruling House of Saud also presents itself as a force for stability in the region, warning that what might follow its overthrow would be infinitely worse even than a regime that beheads people for “sorcery.”

But do shared strategic interests necessarily translate into substantial strategic co-operation?

Britain is also an ally of Saudi Arabia. Pressed by a journalist recently about why Britain supported Saudi Arabia’s should-have-been-farcical bid to sit on the United Nations Human Rights Council, Prime Minister David Cameron was more forthright than Western politicians typically are on the matter. “We have a relationship with Saudi Arabia, and if you want to know why, I’ll tell you why,” he replied testily. “It is because we receive from them important intelligence and security information that keeps us safe.”

But according to Wesley Wark, a visiting professor at the University of Ottawa’s graduate school of public and international affairs: “The Saudi regime is notoriously difficult even for much closer allies than ourselves to exchange intelligence with. This has been a problem that the Americans have had for a very long time.” Canada enjoys a close intelligence-sharing relationship with America, and presumably is privy to at least part of what Saudi Arabia is willing to share with Washington as a result. But as for bilateral co-operation, “every indication is that our intelligence relationship is almost non-existent,” says Wark.

Complicating matters is Saudi Arabia’s habit of funding religious schools and mosques around the world that adhere to its extreme and intolerant Wahhabi version of Islam. Saudi Arabia has backed jihadist groups, too, notes Thomas Juneau, formerly a strategic analyst at the Department of National Defence and now an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa’s graduate school of public and international affairs. “That being said, Saudi Arabia is target No. 1, or close to target No. 1, for al-Qaeda or Islamic State,” he adds. “Saudi Arabia is actively fighting against these groups, like we are.”

Did these factors influence the former Conservative government’s decision to push for the arms deal, or the current Liberal decision to let it go ahead? Probably not. The deal may open doors in Saudi Arabia for Canadian diplomats and businesses. Juneau calls it “a nice business card.” But it’s not going to fundamentally change Canada’s security relationship with Saudi Arabia.

The deal is about money, jobs and bolstering Canada’s defence industry. Call it pragmatism or cynicism. Turns out those reasons are just as persuasive to Liberal governments as to Conservative ones.


Why is Canada making arms deals with the Saudis?

  1. The Saudi’s are going to get these vehicles one way or the other. Would you rather Canada supplied them, created the jobs and wealth, or:

    Russia would provide them, and gain the financial benefits, as well as have Saudi Arabia now dependent upon a country that is clearly hostile to the West.

    It isn’t just about the money. Anyone who thinks cancelling this deal is anything other than window dressing is a fool. No matter how much you protest the Saudi’s behaviour……they will still whack the heads of folks every Saturday in the town square, and they will still treat their women worse than dogs. Welcome to the middle east.

    • Totally agree, and how about China also, human rights are one thing but it is a known fact they have hacked into Canadian businesses and stole secrets, but hey no complaints from our governments on this one. Let alone the global warming they contribute which seems to be the flavour of the year with their huge number of coal burning generation plants. Its all about business so I say go for it, we cant agree with everyone so make a buck any way you can. Our country Canada has very little going for it manufacturing wise so we need every deal we can get.

      • I’ll forgo responding to the snark, and instead say that China is actually worse than Saudi Arabia; but unfortunately, now that China’s economy is going in the toilet and the citizens are likely to be “a tad upset” about the whole thing…..china will actually now get worse. In fact, that is what Trudeau admires about China..he said so. China’s control means it can do what it wants….and that’s what Trudeau would like to be able to do as well.

        And as you have pointed out, China is worse because it’s entire manufacturing economy is based upon theft of intellectual property from the West. Frankly, I would disregard the size of China’s market, and simply stop importing Chinese products. it isn’t like China actually produces anything of value. What they do produce, is all the result of slave labour in many cases, and the quality is crap. but folks like their cheap goods, and Walmart needs to stock the shelves somehow.

        • … not to mention the huge cancellation payment that both the Saudis and General Dynamics would claim.

          BTW, China manufactures BMW and Mercedes cars (be careful what you drive) and, also parts for Boeing and Airbus (be careful how you fly).

          • I’ve been to China many times, and unless it is a tea set, you don’t want anything of Chinese manufacture. Here is an example:


            Watch this, and consider the next time you buy anything from Walmart, or anything marked “made in China:

            Remember, this is a country that uses slave labour, has put melemine in baby food (resulting in thousands of dead babies), and murders political prisoners for their organs.

            Someone please mention this the next time our PM tells us how much he admires China.

  2. In the movie Reds Warren Beatty, alias John Reed was asked about what WW1. and what was it all about and he stood up at the club and said: profits; now that is the case here too; Canada is allowed to make out on the game too, and they have been sanctioned so too; by the American military industrial/intelligence complex and the last two Chicago Jewish bagmen Ambassadors to Canada: don’t think if there was any threatening military hardware to Israel, it would have been approved or would have passed the House of Commons would have avoided Post Media censor or the US Congress or APAC. Lets get real on that point now. My question is: what did the Zionists bargin out of Canada for the 15 mil false sale to Saudi Arabia so that those clowns could look false macho to their ignorant flock of shepards out in the dessert: was it Canadian lower middle class Christian boys going to the middle east while other Canadian boys stayed safe at McGill and York University.

    • Ahh…I see it now Craig Dobson….

      it is all about the Joooossss……………………

      Get lost. Just go back to your NDP pamphlets and foment your conspiracty theories in your mom’s basement.

  3. Why do we get media coverage of russia intervening in eastern ukraine more than Saudi intervening in Bahrain, Yemen, etc to greater degree?

    Isn’t just the “conservatives” or “liberals”, is also most of news media. Sort of like nearly impossible to hear on news about $580 million funding of Egypt military by Obama admin right after long list of “human rights abuses” that US criticised Egypt for.

  4. Selling arms to the Saudis, is the equivalent, of selling arms to a criminal organization. But of course, corporate profit wins out.

  5. Stop Weapon Sales to Saudi Arabia
    The Right Honorable Justin Trudeau
    Prime Minister of Canada
    As a Canadian Citizen, like many others, I was highly pleased
    by your election to the highest office of our country.
    As a Saudi National, however, your Government’s latest decision is deeply disturbing.
    Earlier this week, your Government announced it would not rescind the contract negotiated by the former Conservative Government to supply $15 Billion worth of weaponized vehicles to the Saudi Government.
    The Saudi population is well aware that a few of these vehicles will be used to safeguard the borders, and the majority will be applied to keep the general population under tight control
    As a result of the Saudi economic reality and Saudi Government
    repression of personal rights – including freedom of religion, speech, media, peaceful gatherings or demonstrations, any critique of the Government, basic women’s rights plus Government corruption – social unrest increases to ferment.
    You are aware of the Basic Laws of Saudi Arabia applicable for Saudi Nationals, many incompatible with Canadian values, including:
    – any critique of the Saudi government is punishable by prison,
    lashings and/or public beheading, including crucifycation.
    – apostasy (renouncement of the Saudi government approved
    interpretation of Islam), homosexuality, adultery, witchcraft and
    sorcery are punishable by public beheading, including crucifycation
    There is no doubt whatsoever that the Saudi royal family will continue to deploy any means necessary to safeguard their autocratic regime over the 20 million population, plus 10 million foreigners.
    The Canadian weapons will play a major part.
    Result: many more thousands of innocent killed, more millions of Arab refugees.
    “Almost all of our allies are selling weapons to Saudi Arabia,” your
    Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion argued on Tuesday. “It’s part of the world in which we live.”
    Unfortunately, it looks like back to business as usual.
    Respectfully, I submit that the issue of weapons sales to Saudi Arabia needs to be officially revisited and the Canadian public be fully informed and consulted, before proceeding any further.
    Adel Mosly

  6. I’m appalled no one called and asked me if this was cool..wow.

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