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Politics Saudi Arabia wages public campaign to boost reputation in Canada

The Saudi Arabia Embassy in Ottawa.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Saudi Arabia is mounting a charm offensive in Ottawa this month that appears aimed at boosting its reputation among Canadians – or at least federal politicians – with a celebration of Saudi culture that will include folk dancers on Parliament Hill.

The Mideast country's abysmal human-rights record has featured prominently in a growing controversy about a $15-billion deal to buy Canadian-made combat vehicles.

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 jailing and flogging atheists. A UN panel alleges the country has committed serious human-rights violations in a war it has waged in Yemen.

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The Saudi embassy, however, would like Canadians to consider other aspects of Saudi life as it seeks closer ties with Canada. More than 14,000 Saudi students attend Canadian universities and colleges, and last year, Saudi Arabia teamed up with a U.S. agribusiness company to buy more than 50 per cent of the Canadian Wheat Board, now renamed G3 Canada.

The embassy is issuing invitations to "Saudi Cultural Days in Canada" from May 18 to May 21 that will include demonstrations of Arab cuisine, calligraphy, fine arts, music, henna design and handicrafts, and seminars on Saudi-Canada relations. A spokeswoman for the Saudi embassy said it is the first time in 25 years that the country has staged this cultural display in Canada, but firmly rejected the notion it has anything to do with the controversy over the massive arms sale.

"Holding [this] in Canada has nothing to do with the sale of the armoured vehicles," Shaza Fahim wrote. She said the event has been planned for years. "This … is an occasion to celebrate the friendship between Saudi Arabia and Canada, promote cultural diversity and build stronger relations between the people of Saudi Arabia and Canada."

One critic of the Saudi arms deal noted many aspects of life in Saudi Arabia will be absent from the display Riyadh is mounting in Ottawa.

"We're not going to see the executions, the crucifixions, the people flogged for what they wrote on blogs, we're not going to see women denied the right to drive," said Steven Staples, vice-president of the Rideau Institute, an advocacy and research group.

"I don't care how many dancers they bring to Parliament Hill – it's not going to change Canadians' views."

Opposition to the $15-billion deal for fighting vehicles is hardening. A huge coalition of human-rights, development and arms-control groups banded together last week to urge Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in a letter to rescind what they called an "immoral and unethical" decision by the Liberals to approve export permits for the combat machines. They warned there is a reasonable risk Riyadh will use the vehicles against its own citizens and in Yemen.

John Capobianco, a senior partner in Toronto with the global communications firm Fleishman-Hillard, said the Saudis likely realize they have been losing ground in public opinion around the world. "They are obviously in a campaign to change that or at least give those who think ill of them a reason to think otherwise."

Amnesty International Canada's secretary-general, Alex Neve, said it will be incumbent on any Canadian public officials meeting with the Saudi delegation during this PR outreach to "make it very clear" they have serious concerns about human-rights violations in Saudi Arabia.

Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion's office said the minister will not take part in the Saudi cultural events.

Polls conducted in early 2016 suggest Canadians are not impressed with the Saudi government. More than 86 per cent hold a negative or somewhat negative view, according to polling conducted by Nanos Research in late January and early February.

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