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Opinion Regional reality: There are worse alternatives than the House of Saud

Michael Bell teaches at Carleton University and advised Justin Trudeau on foreign policy before the recent federal election. He served as Canada's ambassador to Jordan, Egypt and Israel.

Former Liberal foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy is deploring the decision of the Trudeau government to proceed with the sale of General Dynamics' light armoured vehicles (LAVs) to Saudi Arabia, given that country's appalling human rights record. Mr. Axworthy is a man of outstanding principle. But, irony of ironies, even the Conservative party, which initiated and signed the deal, is trying to score points on the human rights front by attacking the present government's decision to follow through.

The Saudi record has been highlighted most recently by the execution of 47 prisoners earlier this month on grounds of national security. Among the executed was prominent Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, who had called for the abolition of the monarchy. Largely ignored is that the great majority of those killed were Sunni activists associated with Islamic State, all seeking the demise of the Saudi regime and its replacement by the extremist caliphate. Such executions are totally unacceptable whatever the circumstances.

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However, one only has to look at the Syrian and Iraqi tragedies to conclude there are far worse alternatives than the House of Saud, both for the region and the international community.

Economic, political and strategic problems have beset the ruling family; increasingly cash-strapped, the government's ability to buy off its citizens with massive subsidies is no longer sustainable. Given its absolutist mentality, it feels threatened by growing internal dissent, particularly by its restless and discriminated-against Shia population, which is largely located in the eastern provinces among the oil fields. It is challenged by Iranian ambition not only domestically with the Shia, but throughout the region: Yemen, where its military intervention is inconclusive; Iraq, where the Shia majority dominates; and Syria, where the Assad regime and its Russian allies threaten Sunni emergence. It fears the loss of the American security cocoon.

Unlike Iran, with its long historic and imperial tradition, its well-established institutional governance framework, its societal cohesion, relative pluralism and assertive if threatening foreign policy, Saudi Arabia is inherently a weak state. Riyadh is obsessed with the belief that Tehran's growing international legitimacy in the wake of the nuclear agreement threatens the ruling family's own security (and indeed the country's – for the two are often equated), if not survival. As exaggerated as this may be to any dispassionate analyst, it is real. It lives with burning intensity in the ruling princes' minds, particularly that of the 30-year-old deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

If the Saudi royal family were to fall, it would result in a massive destabilization of the Arabian Peninsula. Does this mean we should write them off in a world when hardball is the only game, where no regional standards meet ours? Are we to write off the interest displayed by the smaller Gulf States – Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates – in acquiring LAVs because of their alleged human rights violations (which are less spectacularly evident in the international media)?

To do so would mean single-issue politics, in this case human rights, should invariably trump all other considerations, including international and regional stability, security and our own economic well-being. If so, we should immediately consider the future of our relationship with other noteworthy human rights violators, perhaps beginning with China.

Unfortunately, we live in a highly imperfect world where it is beyond our capacity to change the primordial behaviour of other states within their own borders, no matter the legitimacy of our concerns. As members of the international community we live in a web of immensely complicated contending interests where to be effective we must be realists.

We have to ask ourselves whether a rough balance of power in the Middle East, as shambolic as it is, better suits Canadian interests than the fall of the Saudi dynasty, which would further destabilize an entire region. These LAVs may just maintain a semblance of equilibrium. Nor can we ignore that this latest deal (we have been selling LAVs to the Saudis for decades) affects 3,000 jobs over 15 years, and is worth $15-billion to the Canadian economy. Hefty penalties would apply were we to renege.

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The Trudeau government has committed itself to review our arms-sales policy and there is no doubt in my mind that they will. They may revise our criteria or the application of our current policies. There may be consultations with our closest multilateral partners on common practice. But to pull the plug on this deal now just doesn't hold water.

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