Saudi Arabia says it's postponing a celebration of Saudi culture planned for Canada's capital this week, a move that comes as controversy persists over Ottawa's $15-billion sale of combat vehicles to Riyadh and whether the deal might help the Mideast country perpetrate human-rights violations.
The May 18-21 festival appeared to be a Saudi charm offensive aimed at federal policy makers as the Trudeau government fields questions about its decision to grant export permits for the armoured vehicles to a country that U.S. watchdog Freedom House regularly ranks among "the worst of the worst" on human rights.
The Saudi embassy blamed "logistical reasons" for its last-minute change of plans when contacted Monday and a spokesperson said the country's decision was not motivated by fear of protesters. Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion's office had already said he would not be attending the "Saudi Cultural Days in Canada."
Peggy Mason, an opponent of the Saudi arms deal, who served as Canada's UN ambassador for disarmament from 1984 to 1994, said the now-delayed festival had struck her as an odd move in the midst of a national debate over a weapons sale and given the eroding human-rights situation within Saudi Arabia.
"The timing seemed very bizarre, so perhaps this postponement indicates they, too, have come to realize this might be problematic," said Ms. Mason, president of the Rideau Institute, an advocacy and research group.
Saudi officials, who prefer to communicate by e-mail, did not respond when asked whether Riyadh had trouble acquiring visas from the Canadian government to admit all the Saudi performers and accompanying delegation officials who had hoped to attend.
Canada's Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship declined to comment on the matter, citing privacy, but said any visa applicant would have to satisfy Ottawa that they "meet the requirements for a temporary resident visa," including, but not limited to: valid travel documents; a lack of criminal or immigration-related convictions; and sufficient evidence that they will leave Canada at the end of their visit.
A Saudi spokesperson also denied the cultural extravaganza has been outright cancelled, saying it would be moved to a later date.
The event was to include folk dancers on Parliament Hill and a celebration of all things Saudi at the downtown Shaw Centre. (Photos and videos of similar events held in other countries suggest all the dancers are men.) Also planned were demonstrations of Arab cuisine, calligraphy, music, henna design, handicrafts and seminars on Saudi-Canada relations.
The embassy was adamant the event "had nothing to do" with the $15-billion arms deal and said it had been planned for years. Canada's Department of Global Affairs, however, said it was notified of the "Cultural Days" on Jan. 14. That date was nearly two weeks after mass executions in Saudi Arabia drew public condemnation from the Trudeau government.
Polling suggests the vast majority of Canadians hold a dim view of the Saudi Arabian government, which is controlled by the ruling House of Saud. It has drawn major international condemnation for mass executions and for jailing and flogging atheists. A UN panel alleges the country has committed serious human-rights violations in a war it has waged in Yemen.
Last week, The Globe and Mail published footage from Shia activists in al-Qatif showing Riyadh's forces using armoured vehicles against civilians. The vehicles that were deployed are not Canadian-made, but they demonstrate the Saudis' proclivity to use such machines against their people
Ali Adubisi, director of the Berlin-based European-Saudi Organization for Human Rights, says Saudi authorities have deployed armoured vehicles against Shia civilians in Eastern Province more than 15 times since 2011.