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How Canada's looming vote could affect Ottawa-Riyadh rift

As diplomatic spat drags on under Canada's ruling Liberals, Tories are looking to make it an election issue
Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland speaks in Washington on 13 June (AFP)
By in
Halifax, Canada

A year since a tweet from the Canadian government launched a diplomatic row with Saudi Arabia, the two sides remain at an impasse - and the opposition Conservatives hope to capitalise on the discord in October's federal election.

Last week, Tory foreign affairs critic Erin O'Toole told the Canadian Press news agency that if elected, a Conservative government would seek to mend ties with Riyadh, which frayed in August 2018 after Ottawa publicly denounced the arrests of Saudi rights activists. 

O'Toole criticised the ruling Liberals for "yelling into the wind" amid the broken bilateral relationship, and said the Tories would aim to "win some trust" back with the Saudis by improving commercial ties and offering more aid to the Gulf region.

'I'm not sure it's entirely within our hands at this point to repair the relationship'

- David Chatterson, former Canadian ambassador to Saudi Arabia

The approach could garner support from Canadian businesses, as the dispute has reportedly led to visa rejections, a blockage of Canadian shipments to Saudi Arabia, and a halt on trade and investment deals.

The row also threw the future of hundreds of Saudi medical students training in Canada into limbo.

"It's reasonable to think that we have lost, on a continuing basis, a few billion dollars a year in gross revenues, half of which would be on the educational side," David Chatterson, a former Canadian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, told Middle East Eye.

"And I don't know how you would cost the loss of influence we have in Saudi Arabia and in the Gulf more generally."

Promoting human rights

On the other hand, the Canadian public has been largely supportive of Ottawa's move to censure Saudi Arabia, making it difficult for the government to pull a u-turn.

At the height of the spat last summer, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau noted that "Canadians have always expected our government to speak strongly, firmly, clearly and politely" about the need to respect international human rights.

And despite behind-the-scenes efforts by government ministers to de-escalate the dispute, Ottawa doubled down on its criticism of Riyadh after the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last October, with Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland calling for "a credible and independent investigation" into the "abhorrent" incident.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks in Ottawa in June 2018 (AFP)
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks in Ottawa in June 2018 (AFP)

Canada's critiques have not spurred any tangible changes on the Saudi side, however, with Riyadh still requesting an apology to resolve the dispute.

"The [Canadian] public has generally supported the government on human rights issues; the problem is that our public comments about Saudi [Arabia]'s human rights are not going to make any difference in the situation there or in the government's approach," said Scott Jolliffe, chair of the Canada Arab Business Council.

"And so I think we're sort of idling," Jolliffe told MEE.

Rather than public censure, he added, a more effective strategy would be for Canadian businesses and institutions to work closely with young Saudi students and engineers, "and in that way, have a diplomacy of business and working together, which would have a much greater impact on the average Saudi's view of Canada and its policy towards human rights".

Contentious arms sales

While it remains unclear how the ongoing dispute may play in Canada's upcoming federal election, Barbara Bodine, a professor and director of the Washington-based Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University, told MEE that she would advise Ottawa "to consider carefully the consequences of unprincipled foreign policy".

Considering that the rift was initiated by "overreaction and efforts at intimidation" by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, she added, it would be interesting to see how the Tories intend to repair relations.

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"Do the Conservatives intend to walk back from Canada's long-standing, principled foreign policy? Do they intend to apologise for something [that] in many ways, Canada did not do?" Bodine asked.

"Is this driven by short-term considerations for sales of military equipment?"

Canada's arms sales to Saudi Arabia have been an ongoing point of contention within the country, as critics have lambasted Ottawa for selling billions of dollars worth of armoured vehicles to a government willing to use them against its own people.

The diplomatic row, however, did not prompt the cancellation of the existing $11bn ($15bn Canadian) arms contract

A new approach?

Regardless of which party wins power in October, the Canadian election could lead to a shift in bilateral ties, Jolliffe said.

If the Liberals return to office - particularly with a majority - they could afford to take a "new approach" towards mending ties with Saudi Arabia, he said, while the Conservatives have already pledged to do just that.

"Were the Conservatives to gain power … there is a reasonable chance that Canada-Saudi relations would improve," Rex Brynen, a political science professor at McGill University in Montreal, told MEE.

"[But] this would be less due to anything the Conservatives might do than to the ability of both sides to save face by blaming the dispute solely on the outgoing Liberals."

'Do the Conservatives intend to walk back from Canada's long-standing, principled foreign policy? Do they intend to apologise for something [that] in many ways, Canada did not do?'

- Barbara Bodine, Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University

Chatterson pointed out that the Saudis hold most of the cards from an economic and political standpoint.

"I'm not sure it's entirely within our hands at this point to repair the relationship ... On the Saudi side, they took advantage of Canada to use us as an example to others, to not criticise, to not meddle," Chatterson said.

He noted that political and cultural changes within Saudi Arabia will continue to unfold at the pace bin Salman dictates - with or without Canada's support.

"It's easy to play on the emotions of Canadians and paint Saudi Arabia as an abhorrent regime. I don't know what that gains anyone. Let's recognise that," Chatterson said.

"Let's take their students and show them a different perspective, a different way of life, and influence change that way."