David Chatterson is a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia (2009-11)
While it is unlikely that we shall ever learn the whole truth about the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, many observers have concluded it had to have been approved at the highest level of the Saudi royal family and therefore requires strong censure, if not strong sanctions. As a former Canadian ambassador to the kingdom, I hope Canada’s response involves more than our usual practice of occupying the moral high ground. Rather than announcing some sort of ineffective “punishment,” I would hope that we instead can express our abhorrence of this killing while advancing Canadian interests and helping the Saudi people change the behaviour of their rulers.
In developing an effective Canadian response, we should not ignore Saudi Arabia’s reality and role. The deeply religious and extremely conservative desert kingdom is going through tumultuous change under a brash, impetuous and young Crown Prince intolerant of criticism or dissent. At the same time, the kingdom’s oil reserves and production; wealth and development needs; importance to Islam; regional influence and competition with Iran and Turkey for regional supremacy; seven-decade long alliance with the United States and its close ties to U.S. President Donald Trump have resulted in the desire of many to move quickly beyond this tragedy and return as soon as possible to a “normal” situation.
In terms of our response, there have been many calls for Canada to occupy the moral high ground as we so often do and censure Saudi Arabia, apply economic sanctions and end our arm sales. These actions would respond to Canada’s collective sense of outrage and make many of us feel we are standing up for what is right. Unfortunately, these actions would do nothing to alter the Crown Prince’s views or influence his future behaviour, at least not in the direction we want. They would, however, significantly harm our commercial, economic and security interests and their ineffectiveness would demonstrate to the world our limited influence. Canada would be worse off. And if we pursue this course of action, we should be prepared to pursue the same actions against China, Russia, North Korea, Vietnam, Egypt, Bangladesh, Turkey and a host of other countries, as they all have arrested, imprisoned, or killed their critics.
We could work with our Group of Seven counterparts and like-minded countries to develop a co-ordinated response of similar statements and actions. While this would have a not insignificant impact on the kingdom’s already bruised international reputation, something that does matter to the royal family, it would do little to discourage other countries from rushing in to fill the vacuum created.
Furthermore, in the likely absence of similar actions by the kingdom’s most important (by far) security partner, the United States, our collective actions would have minimal impact on Saudi Arabia’s future behaviour.
Any Canadian attempt to punish Saudi Arabia through censure, sanctions and cancelled arm sales will unfortunately be costly, ineffective and, most importantly, will not change the behaviour or actions of the royal family. A more effective approach would be to channel our outrage toward positive change.
The central issue in this matter is the actions taken by the Crown Prince and other authoritarian regimes to silence critics. In the absence of a free and active press that questions decisions, seeks greater transparency and accountability, and presents alternative views and useful ideas, authoritarian regimes invariably become more and more restrictive and brittle. The result is, too often, not a more tolerant and open government, but rather just a different authoritarian regime.
If we truly want to have an impact, advance Canada’s interests and help the Saudi people change the behaviour of their rulers, and help other oppressed people suffering under authoritarian rule, we should lead a concerted and sustained effort to support and promote a free and vibrant press worldwide, and to track, publicize and condemn attacks on the press wherever they occur. As a critical pillar of support for democracy and accountable government everywhere, an effective fourth estate would help advance the positive evolution of authoritarian countries such as Saudi Arabia.
As Leonard Cohen said “There is a crack in everything. That is how the light gets in.” Let us work to widen those cracks and let in more light.