Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird is planning two meetings with a high-ranking Saudi prince in the coming weeks, according to internal government scheduling documents that suggest a further effort at fostering a relationship with a country that's become a major export market for Canadian military goods in recent years.
A Canadian Crown corporation last year underwrote a $10-billion deal to sell made-in-Canada light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia despite the Mideast country's poor human-rights record when it comes to freedom of expression and belief, women and criminal justice. The 14-year agreement will sustain more than 3,000 jobs in Canada annually and ensure Riyadh remains an important arms trade customer for this country.
Mr. Baird's meetings appear set to take place even as Canada condemns Saudi Arabia for sentencing blogger Raif Badawi to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison for insulting Islam. Mr. Badawai's wife and children were granted asylum in Canada in 2013.
Critics say Canada should demonstrate it is prepared to place concerns about this torture ahead of efforts to strengthen the relationship with Saudi Arabia.
Government scheduling documents obtained by The Globe and Mail show that Foreign Affairs has made a get-together between Mr. Baird and Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal a "Priority A" goal for the minister's visit to the World Economic Forum in Davos later this month. Also, Ottawa is planning to play host to the prince during a planned visit to Canada's capital on Feb. 17.
Prince Turki served for decades as the head of Saudi Arabia's intelligence agency. He later represented his country as ambassador to Britain and then to the United States.
On Wednesday, Mr. Baird's office asked for time to respond to questions about these meetings with the prince and then proceeded to issue a statement by the minister decrying the flogging of Mr. Badawi. It was his first statement on the matter.
"Canada is deeply concerned by the public flogging of Raif Badawi. This punishment is a violation of human dignity and freedom of expression, and we call for clemency in this case," Mr. Baird said.
"While Mr. Badawi is not a Canadian citizen, we will continue to make our position known, both publicly and through diplomatic channels."
Liberal foreign affairs critic Marc Garneau said he wants to see Mr. Baird raise the matter in any meetings with Prince Turki. Canada may be aligned with Saudi Arabia in the fight against Islamic State militants and have business dealings with Riyadh, "but that doesn't prevent us from being honest and forthright based on the values we hold dearly."
Mr. Baird's office said the schedule of meetings comes from a "draft planning document" but would not discuss them.
"While the Prince has no role in the government, he is part of a prominent think tank and holds a number of important positions in Saudi Arabia and internationally," Baird spokesman Adam Hodge said.
There's a lot at stake in Canada's relationship with Saudi Arabia.
A 2012-13 government report on military exports released last month showed Canadian shipments to Saudi Arabia totalled more than $575-million over those two years.
Ken Epps, with Project Ploughshares, said Saudi Arabia is now the biggest export market for Canadian military goods after the U.S., and that as shipments of light armoured vehicles ramp up, he said, the Arab country may rival or surpass the U.S.
"We can only assume meetings like these will be used to bolster Canadian sales and build on the ones announced last year. Our view is that is exactly the wrong direction for Canada," Mr. Epps said.
Mr. Baird in his statement said the promotion of human rights is a major goal of foreign policy. "Canada has an active partnership and candid relationship with Saudi Arabia. … We will maintain an ongoing, respectful dialogue with Saudi Arabia on a number of issues, including human rights."
NDP human rights critic Wayne Marston called on Mr. Baird to intervene with Saudi Arabia on Mr. Badawi's behalf.
Every effort should be made to free him so he can rejoin them, rather than suffer this horrific punishment for exercising freedom of speech."