Former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper is no Twitter fanatic. He tweets so judiciously that when he does, you must assume he wants people to know about it.
Mr. Harper, now in the “consulting” business, took to the social media platform last week to announce an upcoming trip to the Middle East, where he will take part in an investment conference in Saudi Arabia that is sponsored by the oil-rich kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund and is regularly attended by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS. The Future Investment Initiative (FII) was briefly boycotted by Western investors and leaders following the 2018 murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, whose death was linked by U.S. intelligence to MBS himself.
But that was then. Next week, a who’s who of global finance will flock anew to Riyadh for this “Davos in the Desert,” as the FII confab is known. Mr. Harper wanted the world to know that he will join them.
“The government I led is proud to have achieved a constructive relationship with the kingdom,” Mr. Harper tweeted on Oct. 15. “I am also proud that this constructive relationship helped secure jobs for Canadians through the largest export manufacturing contract in Canada’s history.”
That contract, a $15-billion deal to sell Canadian-built light armoured vehicles (LAVs) to the Saudis, has been the bane of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, which have tied themselves in knots trying to explain why they continue to sell arms to the kingdom, despite its egregious human rights abuses and involvement in a war in Yemen that has led to the death or starvation of thousands of civilians, including children. Mr. Trudeau and a succession of Liberal foreign affairs ministers have all refused to cancel the contract, offering vague excuses about the supposed penalties Canada would incur if they did so.
The LAVs, manufactured in London, Ont., by a subsidiary of U.S. defence giant General Dynamics, may or may not be directly implicated in rights abuses committed by the Saudi military against its own citizens or in Yemen. But the optics of continuing to sell arms to the Saudis at all – despite Mr. Khashoggi’s murder, the imprisonment of political activist Raif Badawi and the kingdom’s move to freeze non-arms trade with Canada after then-foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland called for the release of Mr. Badawi and his sister in a 2018 tweet – only serve to underscore the hypocrisy of Mr. Trudeau’s foreign policy, which is high on sanctimony but low on substance.
For better or worse, Mr. Harper never had that problem. As prime minister, he was disdainful of what he considered the mushy multilateralism of previous Liberal governments and scoffed at the “honest broker” approach to Canadian diplomacy favoured by apparatchiks in the Department of Global Affairs.
“I refused to ‘go along to get along’ with many of the bad ideas in the international community,” Mr. Harper wrote after leaving office, counting “attempts to isolate Israel, a naive embracing of the ‘Arab Spring,’ an IMF/G20 desire to bail out Europe, and environmental measures that would unilaterally damage our economy” among the “bad ideas” he fought against.
His “pride” in the Saudi contract, as his recent tweet reveals, must be viewed through the lens of the kingdom’s rivalry with Iran. Mr. Harper considers any enemy of Iran, whose supreme leader calls for the destruction of Israel, a friend of his. Arming the Saudis is entirely consistent with his efforts to counter the mayhem Iran seeks to sow in the Middle East, which includes Tehran’s backing of the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Mr. Harper closed Canada’s embassy in Iran (which the Liberals have vacillated ever since about reopening) and sided with Israel and Saudi Arabia in opposing former U.S. president Barack Obama’s 2015 deal to contain Iran’s nuclear program.
Mr. Harper stood with Mr. Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, in his move to withdraw from the Iran deal and double down on the Washington-Jerusalem nexus in defiance of international opinion. He praised the Trump administration’s negotiation of the Abraham Accords that saw four majority-Muslim countries establish formal diplomatic relations with Israel.
“We were told that moving embassies to Jerusalem would lead to irreparable diplomatic strife. That accepting Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights would raise the spectre of violence. That ending the Iranian nuclear deal and eliminating its terror chief would provoke regional war. That standing behind Arab allies confronting Iranian proxies in Yemen and elsewhere would inflame conflict,” Mr. Harper and Shuvaloy Majumdar wrote in a 2020 National Post op-ed. “These have been axioms of Western diplomacy. And they were all proven wrong.”
Well, that is a matter of some dispute. But at the very least, unlike his successor, Mr. Harper is clear about where he stands on things. His Saudi trip is entirely true to form.
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