Are Saudi threats behind Liberals’ reluctant approval of arms deal?

Image: A big-ass tank with like eight wheels and two armed soldiers sticking out the top in a sandy-looking locale. (Image credit: General Dynamics Land Systems Canada) NOTE: this may not be the actual model of Light Artillery Vehicle GDLS is selling to Saudi Arabia with Canadian governmental mediation and approval; details are sketchy, but the Globe and Mail reports that whatever they look like, they’re gonna be deadly.

Since the last time I wrote about the Canadian government’s unconscionable $15 billion arms deal with human rights pariah Saudi Arabia, it’s become clear that the Trudeau Liberals haven’t been entirely honest with the public.

Upon assuming office last November, the Liberals insisted, on the rare occasions they deigned to speak about the matter, that the deal was done, and that their hands were tied. As unfortunate as that was, there was nothing they could do about it without damaging the credibility of the Canadian government.

That was always a disingenuous argument. The Department of Foreign Affairs is required by law to block the sale of arms when it has reason to believe they may be used against civilian populations, and whatever contractual credibility the Canadian government was preserving was massively outweighed by lost credibility on human rights issues.

But it now turns out that it was also a completely inaccurate argument. The final export permits for more than 70% of the equipment involved in the sale were signed not by Rob Nicholson, Stephen Harper’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, but by Stéphane Dion, just days ago.

Now, facing charges from opposition politicians that they blatantly lied to the public, accusations from human rights experts that they are violating international law, and revelations that internal government reports warning of increased human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia went unheeded, the Liberals are on the defensive. Prime Minister Trudeau continues to insist, laughably, that proceeding with the deal is a matter of “principle”; in doing so, he is implicitly arguing that a preliminary agreement on a government-brokered private contract ought to trump both national and international law.

It’s difficult to see what the upside is for the Liberals in going ahead with this, especially given the months of fierce criticism they faced before they signed off on the export permits for the light armoured vehicles in question. It’s an open secret that several senior Liberal advisors and politicians disagree with the deal, or at least did mere months ago when they were in opposition. Dion in particular has made his displeasure with the deal no secret, even as he’s loyally if inexpertly defended the government’s rationale for proceeding with it.

On top of internal opposition, the meagre case they’ve made for the deal is simply not tenable. Cynical political observers point to the fact that the deal supports jobs in vote-rich south-western Ontario, but this observation doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny either. The oft-cited figure of 3000 jobs that the deal will allegedly create may be somewhat inflated; at any rate, all of those jobs are temporary. And as Stephen Lewis put it in his masterful speech at the NDP convention last week, “if those jobs are crucial, as they are, and if the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia is odious, as it is, then a serious, progressive government pulls out all the stops to create three thousand jobs in another manufacturing environment, or another sector, or using infrastructure funds in southwestern Ontario…whatever it takes. It is not beyond our capacity. We should never believe it’s beyond our capacity to say no to the Saudis and yes to employment.”

And realistically, that’s a plan that I could have easily envisioned the Trudeau government putting into practice. It would have been consistent with their lofty rhetoric on Real Change and feminism and human rights and etc. Trudeau could have said something pithy about rejecting the false dilemma between human rights and the economy, and committed some portion of his government’s $30 billion stimulus deficit to replacing the jobs lost as a result of rejecting the deal. Certainly, this would have been a far more popular course of action than the one his government has taken, both with the public and within the party.

So why in the world are the Liberals going ahead with this disastrous deal?

One possibility is a covert threat of retaliation by the Saudis. Although all of the evidence for this is by necessity indirect and circumstantial, it’s a possibility which must be taken seriously. This is a government which has taken hardball to a whole other level.

Recall, for instance, how the Saudis dispatched Prince Bandar bin Sultan, then head of intelligence for the Kingdom, to Russia in 2013 for a private negotiating session with President Vladimir Putin. Bandar essentially tried to ensure that Putin would not meddle with the Saudi-funded extremist militants in Syria by threatening to engineer a terrorist attack on the upcoming Sochi Olympics. (Putin angrily rejected the offer of “protection” from Chechen terrorist groups that the Saudi prince openly acknowledged he was able to control.)

Or look at the very public way the Saudi government is extorting the United States with right now. In response to a Congressional bill which would declassify a twenty-eight page section of the 9/11 Commission Report examining the involvement of high-ranking Saudi government officials in planning and/or funding the attacks, the Saudis have heavily lobbied the Obama administration, threatening to sell off $750 billion in U.S. assets if the bill passes.

Basically, when it comes to forwarding their interests, the Saudis don’t mess around. And given the way that Western governments are increasingly calling for an arms embargo against the Kingdom, they’re doubtless determined to at least hold on to the contracts they’ve currently got.

And indeed, we do have some indications that the Saudis have threatened to retaliate massively if Canada backs out of the deal. Insisting that he couldn’t disclose the details of the deal, Stéphane Dion did admit to a Senate committee in February that the government would “possibly” face “hefty penalties”. Dion wouldn’t say exactly how hefty, and to be fair, it was the Harper government which negotiated the deal. They may well have agreed to conditions which would essentially make it unaffordable for a future government to rescind the agreement.

Of course, the game of carrot and stick only works if there are potential rewards as well as potential punishments. (In his meeting with Putin, Bandar also offered a lucrative oil partnership.) And here, again, we have some indications that the Saudis are playing this game:

“For a long time now, Saudi Arabia has bought the silence of Westerners with its juicy civilian and military contracts,” Mr. [Jocelyn] Coulon [an academic and former journalist] said in the Jan. 10 column.

He talked about the need for stability in the Mideast but also derided Riyadh’s buildup of military equipment and suggested the Saudis are waging war incompetently in places such as Yemen, where they are fighting Houthi rebels aligned with Iran.

“In 2014 alone, [Saudi Arabia] purchased $64-billion of unnecessary armaments from U.S., French and British manufacturers. Its armies barely know how to use them, as can be seen in Yemen and against Islamic State militants,” Mr. Coulon wrote in a column analyzing strife between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

(This analysis proved awkward for the Liberal government last week, as Coulon has since accepted a job as a senior advisor to Stéphane Dion.)

In short, the Liberals may have inherited an impossible dilemma – a Saudi arms deal with an overinflated valuation and shockingly prohibitive penalties for withdrawal.

This is not to excuse their behaviour. They’re still prioritizing the bottom line, and being self-righteously sanctimonious about it to boot. Their actions are contributing to the future repression of Saudi dissidents and/or war crimes like those currently being committed in Yemen. The right thing to do is still for them to reject this poisonous deal.

But behind-the-scenes Saudi machinations likely go a long way towards explaining why they didn’t take that course of action, and instead have resorted to laughably fallacious defences of an indefensible arms deal.


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