Bessma Momani is a professor at the Balsillie School of International Affairs at the University of Waterloo. She is also a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.
As Canadians watch the devastating war in Yemen and follow the reports about the Saudi government’s ties to the gruesome murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, it is understandable that there is an increased push for Canada to cancel our arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said that his government will “try and see if there is a way” to scuttle the $15-billion light armoured vehicles (LAV) sales by re-evaluating Canadian export permits. Certainly, Mr. Trudeau is feeling the heat of broad domestic sentiment – that Canadian principles don’t include supporting Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen or contributing to the domestic repression of its opponents.
But cancelling the LAV deal will do little to stop the Saudis or alleviate the suffering of Yemenis.
Make no mistake, the war in Yemen is appalling. Saudi Arabia’s aerial campaign against the Houthi rebels is notorious for missing its targets and causing high civilian casualties, and they reveal the Saudis' overall disregard for human life on the ground. Yemenis have become caught in the middle of two ills: While the Royal Saudi Air Force terrorizes innocents from the skies, the Houthi rebels – opportunist warlords who mistreat and violate civilians throughout the country – terrorize them on the ground.
Stopping the war is vital, but it is important to put Canadian LAV sales into perspective. Saudi Arabia’s primary arms supplier is the United States; trailing way behind is the United Kingdom and France. According to the Stockholm International Peace and Research Institute’s arms transfer database, the military capability value of Canadian arms transfers – or its actual contribution to Saudi fighting capability – is practically insignificant. In fact, arm sales to Saudi Arabia from countries such as Switzerland, Spain and Italy are more important to the Saudi war machine than Canada’s contribution.
The focus should be on the United States. While the United States recently committed to stop refuelling of Saudi jets in mid-air, which should diminish bombing runs by approximately 20 per cent, there has been almost no action thus far to stop the country from arming the Saudis. Last week, the U.S. Senate voted to stop selling them weapons, but the bill will not get through the Republican-held House of Representatives or President Donald Trump’s veto, making the Senate vote largely symbolic. We need a sustained global effort to pressure the United States to stop arming the Saudis with lethal aerial capability that has caused so much death and destruction – and which hasn’t even done much to change the position of the Houthi rebels on the ground.
But even if the war stopped tomorrow, Yemen’s economy has collapsed and its currency has lost its value on global markets. Yemen has been dependent on food imports for decades and the diminishing value of the rial has caused food prices to skyrocket, making access to food the greatest systemic challenge for the average Yemeni. With most civil servants barely being paid and the entire economy at a standstill, people’s purchasing power is plunging, putting the food that is available in the market out of reach.
With 16 million people on the verge of starvation, according to the World Food Programme, getting its economy functioning again by helping its central bank regain sorely needed hard currency is key to helping Yemen get back on its feet. The international attention to the war in Yemen – even if circuitously, after the slaying of Mr. Khashoggi – will hopefully raise pressure on warring parties to implement the terms of a tentative agreement worked out in Sweden last week, as international support to inject liquidity into Yemen’s central bank is the key to alleviating mass hunger.
Stopping the war in Yemen is the vital first step. But cancelling the LAV deal will not be the nail in the coffin on this war and, more importantly, it will not alleviate the starvation and suffering of Yemenis. The penalty costs of cancelling the LAV deal is reported to be in the billions of dollars, and the loss of nearly 3,000 manufacturing jobs near London, Ont., just a month after General Motors announced that it will shutter its Oshawa factory, may all be too much for the Liberals to endure politically. It is an election year in 2019, after all, and the Liberals will need to decide if the feel-good move of cancelling the LAV deal is worth more than the financial and political costs to be incurred, and their ability to create more effective change.