Saudi Arabian officials say the controversial $15-billion Canadian deal to supply Riyadh with weaponized armoured vehicles should be seen as a goodwill gesture by the Islamic kingdom to cement its friendship with Canada.
They are also denying the authenticity of reports which show older Canadian-made combat vehicles taking part in the Yemeni war – a use for the machines that was not contemplated when Canada sold them to Saudi Arabia to maintain internal security.
Saudi Arabia's chief envoy told The Globe and Mail that the General Dynamics LAV contract, personally approved for export by Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion in April, is an act of friendship.
"This contract has been given to Canada to improve the relations and enhance the relations," Ambassador Naif Bin Bandar al-Sudairi told The Globe during a media event at the Saudi embassy in Ottawa on Wednesday evening. "So we have to see this contract from this perspective – co-operation."
The Saudi declarations of goodwill come as Riyadh's relationship with the United States is under increasing scrutiny. This week, Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate voted by large margins to override a presidential veto and allow the passage of legislation that permits families of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks to sue Saudi Arabia in U.S. courts for its alleged role in the event. Fifteen of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudi citizens but Riyadh denies any role in the attacks and had threatened to punish the U.S. economically if the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act passed.
The motive behind Riyadh awarding deals such as the one Ottawa brokered – the largest advanced manufacturing export contract in Canadian history – has been questioned by experts, including one of Mr. Dion's top advisers. Just weeks before he joined the ministers' office last March, Jocelyn Coulon wrote in LaPresse that Saudi Arabia has "bought the silence" of Westerners by awarding them "juicy" contracts to supply it with military and civilian goods.
A memorandum written by the department of Global Affairs in the spring said that, among other reasons, Ottawa should approve the LAV export deal to help the kingdom defend itself – even though human-rights advocates warned the armoured vehicles could be used for offensive purposes in Yemen and against Saudi citizens.
Canada's export-control rules for weapons shipments are supposed to require Ottawa to restrict arms exports to countries such as Saudi Arabia, that have "poor human-rights records." Saudi Arabia, regularly ranks among the "worst of the worst" on human rights by U.S. watchdog Freedom House.
Abdullah al-Rabeeah, a senior adviser to the Royal Court who also runs King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Centre, said the critics are wrong about Saudi intentions in buying the LAVs, calling the contract a way to "open jobs … and [build] bridges with Canada."
"It is very easy to criticize when you are 4,000 or 5,000, 6,000 miles away," Dr. al-Rabeeah said, urging The Globe to reach out to the Canadian embassy in Riyadh: "I am sure they have information that will be credible."
Mr. al-Rabeeah flatly denied that older Canadian-made LAVS are deployed in the fight against Houthi rebels as Riyadh tries to alter the outcome of a civil war in neighbouring Yemen.
"Those light armoured vehicles are not actually suitable for the conflict in Yemen and for what is happening in Yemen. These are for the Royal Guard, which is an internal use. To my knowledge, they have not been used in Yemen," he said.
He also said those LAVs have not been used against the Shiite minority in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia who have engaged in street fights with the Saudi security forces.
The Saudi ambassador, who had Mr. Dion to the embassy for dinner just before the Foreign Affairs Minister approved the export contract, appeared annoyed at the persistent questions about the LAV contract and Saudi's much documented record of human-rights abuses.
"Why are you only talking about this contract? We have many other contracts like Bombardier or SNC-Lavalin," he snapped. When asked if the kingdom plans to buy more Canadian-made LAVs, Mr. al-Sudairi replied: "I think we have enough."
Alex Neve, secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada, said Western countries, including Canada, are making a huge mistake by selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, which stands accused of mounting indiscriminate air strikes that have hit schools, hospitals and mosques in Yemen.
"We are not at all assuaged by assertions that this is just a goodwill gesture to Canada," Mr. Neve said. "The bottom line is that military equipment is making its way from Canada to Saudi Arabia and Saudi Arabia is leading a military intervention in Yemen that is replete with war crimes."
The Saudi denial about the use of the LAVs in Yemen has been contradicted by information published on social-media sites. Photos on the official Twitter site of the Saudi National Guard in late 2015 showed columns of combat vehicles moving near the Yemeni border that were identified by experts contacted by The Globe as Canadian-made LAVs. At least one video of wartime footage posted on YouTube also showed what appears to be a disabled Canadian-made LAV, presumably abandoned by Saudi troops in Yemen.
On May 11, 2016, The Globe and Mail also reported on video evidence of LAVs being used to suppress protests in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province. While the origin of the vehicles is unclear, these reports deepen Amnesty's concern that Canadian-made LAVs could be misused.
Saudi Arabia has come under widespread criticism for its conduct in the air war in Yemen. The United Nations has accused the Saudi-led coalition of a breach of international law for air strikes against civilian targets.
Dr. al-Rabeeah insisted his country applies the "principles of humanity" in the conflict and spends about $500-million (U.S.) on relief efforts in Yemen, although he acknowledges Saudi pilots have made mistakes in targeting.
"They do their best to avoid hitting civilian targets as best they can," he said. "Some of them were co-ordinates that were given wrongly to the coalition and I am sure in any conflict there will be mistakes but I know, as a fact, there is no intention at the level of the government or the nation of Saudi Arabia to harm the people of Yemen."