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EXPLAINER

The Saudi arms deal: What we’ve learned so far, and what could happen next

A light-armoured vehicle driven by Canadian soldiers is shown in southern Afghanistan in 2010.

A light-armoured vehicle driven by Canadian soldiers is shown in southern Afghanistan in 2010.

KIRSTY WIGGLESWORTH/ASSOCIATED PRESS

In 2014, the Harper government struck a $15-billion deal to sell military vehicles to Saudi Arabia. Critics are worried the Saudis would use them to crush dissent at home – which could put Canada in violation of its arms-trading rules. The Trudeau government has begun approving export permits for the vehicles anyway. Here’s what we know about the deal so far

TABLE OF CONTENTS

What the deal says

Who we’re dealing with

What Ottawa and Riyadh are doing



What the deal says

What does Canada get from this deal?

The 2014 agreement gives General Dynamics Land Systems Canada a 15-year contract to make weaponized military vehicles for Saudi Arabia. In total, the deal is worth about $15-billion. It will reportedly employ about 3,000 people in Canada, mostly in London, Ont., where the General Dynamics plant is located. ( Here’s Steven Chase’s breakdown of the deal, and here’s what London politicians and business officials told The Globe’s Richard Blackwell about the economic impact the deal might have.)

What do the Saudis get from this deal?

The light-armoured vehicles, or LAVs, will be equipped with machine guns, medium- or high-calibre weapons or even big-barrel guns that can fire 105mm shells or anti-tank missiles. ( Here’s Steven Chase and Daniel Leblanc’s explanation of what weapons the vehicles might be equipped with.) They’re being bought by the Saudi Arabian National Guard, the force that protects the Sunni Muslim-ruled kingdom against internal threats.

THE GLOBE AND MAIL

What could the Saudis use the vehicles for?

In the past, Canada has sold the Saudis military equipment for defence against possible attacks by either Islamic State or Riyadh’s Shia Muslim rival, Iran. But Saudi Arabia has long faced criticism from governments and human-rights activists for crackdowns on dissidents and the country’s Shia Muslim minority – for example, its mass execution of 47 people on Jan. 2, including Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, on terrorism charges. Critics are worried the Saudis would use Canadian-made light-armoured vehicles against civilians instead of Riyadh’s foreign foes.

Video footage analyzed by The Globe appeared to show the Saudis might do exactly that.

Footage appears to show Saudi authorities using LAVs against civilians

2:14

The videos, dated from 2012 and 2015, show Saudi authorities using LAVs (albeit not Canadian-made ones) against Shia dissidents in Eastern Province, where Nimr al-Nimr was born. ( Here’s Steven Chase’s explanation of how that region became a flashpoint of conflict between Shias and the Saudi government, and his report on how Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responded when asked about the videos.)

Activists also allege that the Saudis sent Canadian-made vehicles into Bahrain in 2011 to help quell a democratic uprising. (The Canadian government doesn’t deny this happened; it says only that it doesn’t believe the vehicles were used to combat protests.)

Attacks on civilians – or even serious, reasonable doubt that the Saudis would use LAVs only for their stated military purpose – would raise red flags under Canada’s weapons export rules, which forbid weapons shipments “unless it can be demonstrated there is no reasonable risk that the goods might be used against the civilian population” by the buyer.

Do the Saudis have the vehicles yet?

General Dynamics is still gathering the materials needed to make the vehicles, but export permits were issued in April, 2016, for an unspecified number of them, according to a secret Global Affairs Canada memo released by the Justice Department.

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King Salman of Saudi Arabia.

King Salman of Saudi Arabia.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Who we’re dealing with

What is Saudi Arabia’s military role in the Middle East?

The wealthy oil-producing kingdom is one of the biggest regional powers in the Middle East, and a member of the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State – an organization that some leading Saudis helped fund as early as 2011, in common cause against Iran and other Shia powers in the region. ( Here’s Patrick Martin and Jeremy Agius’s map of the rivalries and alliances in the fight against Islamic State, and an explanation from Mr. Martin of how the proxy feud between Iran and the Saudis has heated up recently.)

TRISH McALASTER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL (SOURCE: PEW RESEARCH CENTER, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS)

Canada also joined the coalition fighting Islamic State under the Harper government, but the Trudeau government that succeeded him decided to withdraw Canada’s CF-18 fighter jets from the bombing mission against the extremist group. The jets ran their last mission in February. The Trudeau government’s new plan in the region is to shift toward an enlarged (and riskier) training-focused operation, as well as humanitarian efforts to help with the Syrian refugee crisis.

What is Saudi Arabia’s human-rights record like?

Riyadh has faced global condemnation ( including from Canada) for its mass executions earlier this year, which has also inflamed relations with Iran. Canada has also been at odds with the Saudis over their treatment of Raif Badawi, a Saudi blogger who, while not a Canadian citizen, has a wife in Quebec. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes on charges of insulting Islam. The Trudeau government has faced political pressure to get Riyadh to grant Mr. Badawi clemency.

Despite Ottawa’s criticism of the Saudis, there’s still much we don’t know about what the government thinks about it behind the scenes. In 2015, the government drew up an internal assessment of human rights in Saudi Arabia, but the government at first refused to release it when The Globe requested it in January. They then reversed itself and said an “unclassified” version would be made available, but researcher Ken Rubin said he had found evidence that the unclassified version would be “sanitized” to avoid damaging Canadian-Saudi relations.

Shiites protest against Saudi execution of cleric

1:31

What are Canada’s other allies doing with the Saudis?

Since January’s mass executions, European allies like Germany and Britain have voiced increasing discomfort with the arms trade to Saudi Arabia, and in some cases have denied export applications. ( Read Steven Chase’s report on the countries getting skittish over selling weapons to the Saudis.)

Sweden, in particular, has tightened its arms-exports regulations recently, and cancelled a defence agreement with the Saudis in 2015. A spokesperson for the Swedish foreign ministry told The Globe that it saw very little economic fallout for doing this.

How does Canada’s arms trade with Saudi Arabia compare with other countries?

Saudi Arabia isn’t the only country with a poor human-rights record that buys Canadian military hardware. Here’s a wider look at where our arms industry is operating:

In the Middle East: Canadian vehicle sales to Saudi Arabia make it the world’s second-biggest arms dealer to the Middle East, according to a 2016 analysis by defence-industry publisher IHS Jane’s. (The United States is No. 1.)

In Asia: Arms sales to China, a nation with a poor human-rights record, soared to $48-million in 2015, according to Global Affairs Canada statistics. Ottawa also made a decision earlier this year about whether to allow arms shipments to Thailand, which is ruled by a military junta – but the government won’t divulge whether Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister approved or blocked the exports.

In Africa: Streit Group, a Canadian-owned maker of armoured vehicles, was alleged by the United Nations to have sold vehicles to the South Sudanese military during a deadly civil war in that country. Those vehicles were manufactured at a factory in the United Arab Emirates. Meanwhile, Algeria – a country that has come under strong criticism for its crackdowns on free speech and the labour movement – was the No. 7 overseas buyer of Canadian military goods in 2015.

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SEAN KILPATRICK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

What Ottawa’s doing

How close is Canada to Saudi Arabia?

Stephen Harper’s Conservative government made Saudi Arabia’s “emerging market” a priority as part of a foreign policy that focused on international trade and business. Ottawa made careful diplomatic overtures to Riyadh in the years before the 2014 arms deal, according to Saudi government documents made public last year by Wikileaks. The Saudis, in turn, made their own investments in Canada, such as donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to expand private Islamic schools in this country.

Diplomatic memos show Ottawa kept a wary eye on Saudi Arabia after the rise to power last January of new monarch King Salman. Federal officials advised Mr. Trudeau that strengthening economic ties with Riyadh was in Canada’s strategic interest, The Canadian Press reported in January.

Whose idea was the arms deal anyway?

The Harper government lobbied hard for the arms deal, which was brokered by a federal Crown corporation, Canadian Commercial Corp. Canada beat French and German companies to get the contract. Ed Fast, then the federal trade minister, touted the deal in February, 2014, as a triumph for Canada’s economic diplomacy.

To get the full inside story of how the deal came together, read Paul Christopher Webster’s profile for ROB Magazine in April (for subscribers).

 Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

Where does the Trudeau government stand on the arms deal?

The government is still going ahead with the deal, but has distanced itself from it over time.

Initially, Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion characterized it as a deal the Conservatives crafted and that the Liberals were obliged to accept when they came to power. Mr. Dion even made a rare appearance in the Senate to make this case.

The government doesn’t approve this contract. The government simply refuses to terminate a contract that has already been approved by the former government. … This is an important difference.

Stéphane Dion, speaking in the Senate on Feb. 18


But the “done deal” argument came into question on April 12, when a secret Global Affairs Canada memo released as part of a legal challenge to the Saudi arms deal – showed the Conservatives had only approved minor-level export permits for the LAVs, and that Mr. Dion had quietly approved the remaining permits for an unspecified number of vehicles on April 8.

PHOTO BY SEAN KILPATRICK/THE CANADIAN PRESS; excerpts from global affairs canada memo

Mr. Dion defended his decision to sign the permits. Days later, in an interview with The Globe’s editorial board, he said he alone made the call, in consultation with International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland, who said she was “comfortable” with Mr. Dion’s decision. Mr. Dion said refusing to sign would have provoked a major economic backlash from Saudi Arabia.

Globe editorial board: Stéphane Dion answers questions on Saudi arms deal

1:29


The government’s position on the arms deal has changed dramatically since it came to office. While the government initially refused to discuss the deal, citing commercial confidentiality, on Jan. 20 they changed tack somewhat, saying that while the government has “no intention” of cancelling the deal, it could suspend or cancel weapons exports if human-rights conditions in Saudi Arabia were shown to have “steadily deteriorated.” Ottawa continued to support the deal after the release of a UN report alleging serious human-rights violations in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition’s bombing campaign is targeting rebel Houthi forces aligned with Iran.

The government also quietly watered down the language of the Report on Exports of Military Goods, Ottawa’s public mandate for screening arms exports.

What does the opposition think?

Now in opposition, the Conservatives have made a U-turn on the deal their government made two years ago, pressing the Liberals to release the deliberations on the deal – specifically, how the government decided that it passed the export-control test.

The New Democrats put forward a motion, which the Tories also supported, to create a House committee to oversee foreign arms sales. In April, the Liberals voted to block the motion in the House foreign affairs committee, where they hold a majority.

Do Canadians care one way or the other?

It depends on which Canadians you ask, and how you ask the question. In a poll by Nanos Research for The Globe and Mail, nearly six out of 10 respondents said human rights should trump job creation when it comes to Canada’s export policy. In the survey of 1,000 Canadians from Jan. 30-Feb. 1, 87 per cent of respondents say they have a negative, or “somewhat negative opinion” of the authoritarian Saudi regime.

What are the Saudis doing about all this?

The Saudis largely stayed quiet amid the debate in Canada over the arms deal – until March, when the Saudi embassy in Ottawa issued a statement saying it would not accept outside criticism of the kingdom’s human-rights record. The embassy statement also pointed out that Riyadh could have easily purchased the LAVs elsewhere. Mr. Dion used the same rationale weeks later when he argued cancelling the deal would be a futile gesture that “would not have an effect on human rights in Saudi Arabia.”

What could happen next?

Litigation: Ottawa is facing a court challenge from Operation Armoured Rights, a campaign led by University of Montreal law professor Daniel Turp that wants to block shipments of the combat vehicles.

Politics: The government is also under pressure to cancel the deal from a coalition of human-rights groups and arms-control advocates, including Amnesty International and Project Ploughshares.

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With reports from Steven Chase, Daniel Leblanc, John Ibbitson, Affan Chowdhry, Colin Freeze, The Canadian Press and Reuters


MORE READING

The inside story of Canada's $15-billion arms deal Ottawa — under both Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau — had, and used, the power to make the deal happen. In ROB Magazine, Paul Christopher Webster explains how they did it. (for subscribers)
Campbell Clark: Vocal in opposition, Liberals turn quiet on fate of jailed Saudi blogger Where is the Liberals' old outrage at the fate of Raif Badawi? (for subscribers)
Patrick Martin: Canada-Saudi weapons deal an echo from 1986 The controversial $15-billion arms contract isn't the first time the Canadian government has brokered such a lucrative and contentious sale to Saudi Arabia. (for subscribers)
Doug Saunders: Why the West is caught in the Saudi embrace At some point, the bubble of foreign-policy hypocrisy has to pop, and our deals and handshakes will become a past embarrassment to avoid mentioning.


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