The Canadian government carefully courted Saudi Arabia in the years leading up to an unprecedented $15-billion arms sale to Riyadh brokered by Ottawa that remains shrouded in secrecy, documents show.
Secret Saudi government documents made public last week by Wikileaks offer a glimpse of how the Harper Conservatives sought closer relations with the Saudis – an effort that paid off in 2014 with a massive deal to sell made-in-Canada armoured fighting vehicles to the Arab state.
The transaction, backed by Canadian taxpayers, has come under fire because Saudi Arabia has one of the worst human rights records in the world today.
The Canadian government refuses to divulge how it justifies the export deal under Ottawa's strict export-control regime. It is by far the largest military export contract Canada has brokered, and federal rules oblige the department of Foreign Affairs to examine whether arms shipments to countries with poor human-rights records would further endanger civilians there. Ottawa will not make public its rationale for allowing the sale of light armoured vehicles or give any details.
An April, 2012, memo to former Saudi king Abdullah describes the Conservative government's push for closer ties. In it, Prince Saud al-Faisal, the kingdom's foreign affairs minister at the time, recounts how Peter MacKay, then Canada's defence minister, laid out a plan to tighten bonds between the two countries during a meeting with the Saudi envoy in Ottawa.
"The honourable minister expressed his appreciation for the major leading role played by the kingdom on the international arena. … He emphasized Canada's desire to develop relations with the kingdom in all fields," Prince Saud wrote.
"[Mr. MacKay] pointed to the recent visit of Canada's foreign minister to the kingdom. … He expressed his keenness to foster relations between the ministries of defence in the two countries, through an exchange of visits on the highest level to discuss means and potentials of co-operation in areas of defence."
Canada has made Saudi Arabia a priority market under the Harper government. Several years ago, the Conservatives refocused international relations to make "economic diplomacy" in service of private industry the centrepiece of Canadian foreign policy. In 2009, the taxpayer-backed Canadian Commercial Corporation, a federal agency that has traditionally brokered Canadian arms sales to the United States, began looking to markets such as the Middle East for new business as the United States cut defence spending.
An April, 2012, diplomatic cable from the Saudi Embassy in Ottawa describes how the kingdom's envoy in Canada offered Mr. MacKay some diplomatic advice on ingratiating himself with the new Saudi Arabian defence minister, Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz.
"I … hinted that it would be appropriate for the minister of defence, Peter MacKay, to congratulate Prince Salman on his new appointment," said the cable, the last page of which was missing, but was apparently by then Saudi ambassador Osamah Al Sanosi Ahmad. The cable noted Mr. MacKay quickly acted on the advice.
It is hard to measure the impact of the Conservative government's entreaties.
But another document made public by Wikileaks shows that only months later, General Dynamic Land Systems Canada, which beat rivals in France and Germany for the $15-billion armoured vehicle deal, was pressing Prince Saud for business.
"Our best wishes for your continued good health and prosperity, and the prosperity of the Kingdom," Richard Craig, Riyadh branch manager for a division of General Dynamics, wrote in a January, 2013, letter to the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The letter also shows General Dynamics had admirers inside Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
A handwritten scrawl across the top of the General Dynamics letter gives the Canadian company a ringing endorsement.
"This is a major international company; it should not be ignored; it can enter the competition," the note says.
General Dynamics will not say which light armoured vehicle it is selling to the Saudis. It advertises its LAV 6.0 fighting vehicle as having "effective firepower to defeat soft and armoured targets."
John Baird, who stepped down as foreign affairs minister earlier this year, visited Saudi Arabia three times in the past few years, and Trade Minister Ed Fast went there at least twice since 2012.