Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

A Cirque du Soleil performance at London's Royal Albert Hall, in England, on Jan. 11.Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

Send in the clowns.

Don’t bother. They’re here.

Cirque du Soleil is defending its decision to deepen its business ties with Saudi Arabia despite concern about that country’s human-rights record and the fate of imprisoned blogger Raif Badawi – whose family lives in Quebec.

The Montreal-based entertainment company recently signed an agreement with the Saudi Ministry of Culture to bring more of its shows to the kingdom, including The Illusionist, Now You See Me, Paw Patrol Live – Race to Rescue, Trolls Live! and Blue Man Group World Tour.

The agreement also sets the stage for Cirque to create an original performance for Saudi Arabia and to collaborate with its officials to establish a regional training academy and office.

Although Cirque is eager to generate new revenue after emerging from bankruptcy protection, its new owners are walking an ethical tightrope by doing more business with Saudi Arabia. The company has had six shows there since 2018, and some of those performances prompted a backlash from employees and ordinary Quebeckers. So it is baffling that it is risking a new controversy while there is widespread worry about Mr. Badawi’s case.

“Through our shows, our goal is always to inspire the local population and our presence in any market should not be interpreted as a political and moral stance,” Cirque spokeswoman Caroline Couillard wrote in an e-mail. “As a private company, we do not believe it is appropriate to interfere in the domestic and foreign affairs of the governments of the countries we visit.”

Let’s get real. This is where the rubber meets the road on corporate social responsibility. Cirque’s seemingly apolitical stance isn’t in keeping with its pledge to act “as a responsible agent of change.”

Saudi Arabia is talking a good game about cultural transformation these days, but it is still very much a repressive regime. Despite relaxing some social norms, the kingdom has made no substantial progress on human-rights issues since the assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.

Its track record on human rights is already a sore spot with Canadians. We’ve learned that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) allegedly sent a hit squad to Canada in a foiled attempt to assassinate former Saudi intelligence officer Saad Aljabri not long after Mr. Khashoggi’s murder. And much to our collective horror, Canadian arms are fuelling the worsening conflict in Yemen (effectively a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran).

Now, with Ottawa calling on Riyadh to release Mr. Badawi from prison, offer him leniency and allow him to reunite with his family, Cirque’s new agreement comes at a particularly sensitive time for Canadian-Saudi relations.

Although Mr. Badawi is a Saudi citizen, his wife Ensaf Haidar and three children are Canadian. He was arrested in 2012 and sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for criticizing Saudi clerics on his blog. According to the Islamic calendar, Mr. Badawi’s prison term ends Feb. 28, but his release is far from certain. Even if he is liberated, he still faces a 10-year travel ban.

Perhaps that’s why the Cirque agreement caught the eye of Ms. Haidar, who congratulated MBS for it in a recent letter, written in French. She took the opportunity to urge him to release her husband and lift his travel ban.

“We believe that this gesture would be in perfect harmony with the reforms you are undertaking,” Ms. Haidar wrote.

Her tone was remarkably polite given the circumstances, but when the potential penalty for offence is to be cut into pieces like Mr. Khashoggi, it’s understandable.

Separately, Mr. Badawi’s supporters are urging Ottawa to grant him Canadian citizenship.

“The Government of Canada is very concerned by the case of Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia,” said Jeffrey MacDonald, a spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. “We have consistently advocated on his behalf and will continue to use every opportunity to do so. His well-being is foremost in our minds.”

That’s why it’s unfathomable that Cirque would sign an agreement like this. And yet Ms. Couillard frames the deal as coming “on the heels of announced reforms and social changes in the country, as well as the announcement of business deals to build an entirely new entertainment industry in Saudi Arabia.”

However, Canadians are unlikely to buy into Saudi Arabia’s propaganda campaign, given how some of Cirque’s previous performances in the kingdom also generated controversy. Not only did Cirque’s own artists voice their concerns back in 2018, but so, too, did co-founder Guy Laliberté, according to a published report from Radio Canada International.

Cirque’s most recent performance in the country was Messi10, named after Argentinian soccer player Lionel Messi, which was held in 2021. Perhaps it should instead take its cues from entertainment heavyweights, such as rapper Nicki Minaj, who have cancelled shows there over human-rights concerns.

The company is twisting itself into a pretzel to justify this new agreement, but its mental gymnastics only risk courting more controversy.

Your time is valuable. Have the Top Business Headlines newsletter conveniently delivered to your inbox in the morning or evening. Sign up today.