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Politics Ending Saudi arms deal would be futile, former Canadian ambassador to kingdom says

A pair of Light Armoured Vehicles (LAV) are parked on the grounds of the General Dynamics Land Systems - Canada factory in London, Ontario.

CHRIS HELGREN/Reuters

Canada’s former ambassador to Saudi Arabia warns that ending the shipment of Canadian-made armoured vehicles to the kingdom, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he’s seeking to do, would be a futile gesture that would only harm employment in this country.

“I don’t think that it achieves anything, to be perfectly honest,” Dennis Horak said. “The Saudis – if they don’t get them – will be disappointed and angry. They will probably want some of their money back. But it’s not going to have any impact at all on their behaviour. None.”

His comments come as Mr. Trudeau talked Sunday of permanently stopping shipments of light armoured vehicles (LAVs) to Saudi Arabia as Riyadh comes under mounting condemnation for the ruinous war it is waging in neighbouring Yemen and the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

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“We are engaged with the export permits to try and see if there is a way of no longer exporting these vehicles to Saudi Arabia,” Mr. Trudeau told CTV’s Question Period on Sunday.

His latest remarks are the clearest signal yet that the Liberal government is serious about terminating a massive deal that Ottawa brokered to sell armoured vehicles to Riyadh – one valued as high as $15-billion over 14 years.

Related: In London, Ont., a $15-billion Saudi deal gets personal

Saudi-Canadian relations and the arms deal: A guide to the story so far

Mr. Horak was Canada’s envoy to Saudi Arabia this summer when Riyadh declared him persona non grata and expelled him following a serious rift with Ottawa over the Trudeau government’s public call for the release of arrested civil-rights protesters in the Mideast country. He has since retired.

The former ambassador said cancelling or suspending the exports would exert no influence on Saudi Arabia, which is already facing widespread international criticism over Mr. Khashoggi’s slaying and the loss of life in Yemen. The UN has called the Yemeni war “the worst man-made humanitarian crisis of our time.”

Mr. Horak said he is not sure what the Trudeau government’s objective is “apart from a political effort to send a message. But a message that is kind of going to be ignored or brushed aside in any case. The people who are going to pay are in London, Ontario.”

The light armoured vehicles are assembled in London, Ont., where the Canadian subsidiary of U.S. defence contractor General Dynamics has its plant.

The contract sustains about 1,850 direct jobs and thousands more indirectly.

General Dynamics warned Monday the Canadian government would face hefty penalties if it abrogates the deal. “Were Canada to unilaterally terminate the contract, Canada would incur billions of dollars of liability to General Dynamics Land Systems-Canada," the company said in a statement. It cautioned such a measure would "have a significant negative impact on our highly skilled employees, our supply chain across Canada and the Canadian defence sector broadly.”

The General Dynamics warning echoes what Mr. Trudeau said on Oct. 25, when he told Canadians “the possible penalties would be in the billions of dollars" for nixing the deal.

In October, Mr. Trudeau raised the idea of suspending the existing export permits underpinning the LAV deal as a means of putting pressure on Saudi Arabia to be more forthcoming on exactly what happened to Mr. Khashoggi.

Human-rights advocates and former Trudeau policy adviser Roland Paris have urged the suspension of these permits, a measure that would stop the shipments, at least temporarily. LAVs, as they roll off the assembly line, are currently shipped to port in Saint John, where they are loaded onto cargo ships bound for Saudi Arabia.

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Cesar Jaramillo, executive director of Project Ploughshares, an arms-control advocate, said he’s skeptical about Mr. Trudeau’s willingness to act. While outright cancellation could trigger penalties, simply suspending the export permits underpinning the deal could accomplish the same thing without automatically incurring costly fines.

“If Ottawa is seriously considering ending LAV exports to Riyadh, why has it not suspended arms shipments to Saudi Arabia while the legal questions around cancellation are resolved? Arms shipments to the kingdom have been suspended before, ostensibly without triggering financial penalties for Canada,” he said.

“It has now been almost two months since the Prime Minister said Canada would not hesitate to freeze arms exports to Saudi Arabia, but all talk and no action only gives the illusion of firmness.”

Mr. Horak said suspending the export permits could assuage calls for action.

The economic impact on London, Ont., and the surrounding region is a major challenge for the Liberals if they suspend or cancel the LAV exports, he said, particularly after General Motors announced in November it will be shuttering its plant in Oshawa, Ont., and laying off nearly 3,000 people.

“I don’t think this government has liked this deal from the start. But they are concerned about the jobs. The last thing they want is another 3,000 jobs out the door,” Mr. Horak said.

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One option might be for the Canadian military to take over the LAV deal and purchase the rest of the armoured vehicles. The deal is expected to include more than 740 vehicles and it’s unknown how many have been delivered to Saudi Arabia so far.

It’s not certain that the Canadian Armed Forces need more LAVs. A $1.8-billion program to substantially upgrade the Canadian army’s LAVs from a LAV 3.0 model to a LAV 6.0 model is already well under way. More than 600 vehicles are being transformed with new technology and parts.

Retired general David Fraser said it’s not clear how the Canadian military might accommodate another LAV purchase. The combat vehicles being assembled for the Saudis are another variant of the LAV 6.0 model.

"The government would have to answer the question, why would you buy vehicles when in fact you just re-equipped the army with new vehicles?

“You just bought a 2017 Chevrolet and now you’re going to go out and buy the same model of a 2018 Chevrolet?" he asked.

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