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Minister of Foreign Affairs Stephane Dion speaks during question period at Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, March 24, 2016. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Minister of Foreign Affairs Stephane Dion speaks during question period at Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, March 24, 2016. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Dion adviser Jocelyn Coulon critical of Saudi arms deals Add to ...

Saudi Arabia has “bought the silence” of Western countries by awarding them lucrative contracts to supply it with military and civilian goods, a senior policy adviser to Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion wrote shortly before he was hired last month.

Jocelyn Coulon’s comments, published weeks before he joined Mr. Dion’s office, are at odds with the Trudeau government’s repeated insistence that it can effectively stand up to Saudi Arabia on human rights while overseeing an unprecedented $15-billion arms deal with Riyadh that will span 14 years until 2028.

Saudi Arabia is notorious for its treatment of women, dissidents and prisoners and regularly ranks among “the worst of the worst” by Freedom House on human rights. It’s also coming under increasing condemnation and censure for its rights violations, with the Dutch Parliament voting earlier this month to ban arms sale to Riyadh.

Mr. Coulon, an academic and former journalist, joined Mr. Dion’s office in March. About six weeks before taking the job, he wrote a column for Montreal’s La Presse newspaper where he said Western countries mute their criticism of Saudi Arabia because of the money they make selling arms and other goods to Riyadh.

“For a long time now, Saudi Arabia has bought the silence of Westerners with its juicy civilian and military contracts,” Mr. Coulon 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.

“Let’s not be naive. The Saudi and Iranian regimes are two dictatorships – the first decapitates women accused of murder and the other stones them for adultery.”

The Trudeau government, which is standing by the Saudi armoured-vehicle deal despite calls to suspend it from groups such as Amnesty International, declined to explain how Mr. Coulon’s stated beliefs fit with its approach to Riyadh.

“We won’t be commenting on the past work of staff members,” Joseph Pickerill, director of communications for Mr. Dion, wrote in an e-mailed statement.

Critics of the Saudi-Canada arms deal say Mr. Coulon’s analysis of the corrupting power of lucrative business deals with Riyadh appears to be falling on deaf ears inside the Liberal government. Two former Liberal cabinet ministers, Irwin Cotler and Lloyd Axworthy, have called on the government to reconsider the deal, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said it would hurt Canada’s reputation if it annulled the contract and Mr. Dion says a broken deal could incur big penalties.

“Coulon’s diagnosis about Saudi Arabia is exactly right, and probably not far from Dion’s own,” University of Ottawa professor Amir Attaran said. “But Dion is probably also getting rotten advice from government lawyers who say the contract can’t be broken, because even the most ironclad contracts almost always have a hidden escape hatch somewhere.”

The Trudeau government said it still speaks frankly to Riyadh about its human-rights record despite the flourishing business that Canadian defence contractors are doing in Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf States.

The Canada-Saudi relationship shows no signs of cooling, however. Less than three months after he condemned mass executions staged by Riyadh that killed 47, Mr. Dion accepted an invitation to dine with the Saudis.

On March 24, the Liberal Foreign Affairs Minister and other key government officials attended a dinner at the Saudi embassy in Ottawa that was sponsored by Arab Gulf States to fete Canada for accepting 25,000 Syrian refugees. Also on hand were deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Daniel Jean and national security adviser Richard Fadden, among others.

Asked what Mr. Dion discussed with Saudi Ambassador Naif Bin Bandir al-Sudairy, the minister’s office said he “takes every opportunity to raise the issues … whether it’s the refugee crisis, human rights or the fight against ISIL,” Mr. Pickerill said, using another name for Islamic State militants.

“The relationship covers a wide range of issues.”

As The Globe and Mail reported earlier this month, Canada’s flourishing security and defence business with Saudi Arabia goes well beyond the controversial $15-billion sale of General Dynamics fighting vehicles to Riyadh, and includes armoured vehicle sales by Terradyne, based in Newmarket, Ont.

Canadian universities also benefit from Saudi largesse. As many as 16,000 Saudi nationals attend higher-education institutions in Canada, according to the Saudi Arabian Cultural Bureau, which cited 2014 numbers. It also said as of that date 1,000 Saudi doctors were studying in this country.

Cesar Jaramillo, executive director of Project Ploughshares, an anti-war group that monitors military spending, said Mr. Coulon joins a list of Liberal advisers who criticized the armoured vehicle deal for cozying up to the Saudis before entering government.

“So far, their views do not seem to be reflected in Ottawa’s position on this contract. Is their advice being ignored? Or have their beliefs changed since entering government?” Mr. Jaramillo said.

When the Liberals were still in opposition, Mr. Trudeau’s top adviser, Gerald Butts, criticized the Harper Conservatives for the vehicle deal, “Principled foreign policy indeed,” he wrote on Twitter last year, circulating a social-media post that compared Saudi Arabia to the Islamic State.

During the 2015 election campaign, University of Ottawa professor Roland Paris was quoted by the CBC as criticizing the armoured-weapons deal. “We don’t know whether assurances were obtained from the Saudis. We’ve allowed an arms sale to trump human rights.” He is now a foreign-affairs adviser to Mr. Trudeau.

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