Former prime minister Stephen Harper says he remains proud to have negotiated a controversial $15-billion armoured vehicles deal with Saudi Arabia, as he prepares to attend an international investment conference in Riyadh as a guest of the desert kingdom.
Mr. Harper, who runs a consulting business, is visiting Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Persian Gulf this month as a private citizen. Ahead of the trip, he posted a statement on Twitter in which he highlighted the strong relationship his government had with the Saudi monarchy.
“The relationship was grounded in shared opposition to the threat posed to the region and wider world by the regime in Iran, a threat that continues to grow,” he wrote on Friday.
Mr. Harper also expressed pride in the agreement to sell light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia. The deal, which Ottawa brokered in 2014, called for the Canadian subsidiary of a U.S. defence contractor, General Dynamics, to supply more than 740 light armoured vehicles (LAVs) to the Saudis. The vehicles were to be equipped with machine guns and anti-tank cannons. The deal faced significant criticism because of Saudi Arabia’s poor human-rights record, its role in the war in Yemen and its use of similar vehicles to fight with militants in its Eastern Province.
“I am also proud this constructive relationship helped secure jobs for Canadians through the largest export manufacturing contract in Canada’s history,” Mr. Harper wrote.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau vowed in 2018 to try to find a way to cancel the arrangement, but he ultimately did not. His government cited prohibitive cancellation fees.
While in Saudi Arabia, Mr. Harper will attend the Future Investment Initiative. The event, which will hold its fifth annual gathering in late October, was boycotted by many Western politicians and business leaders after Saudi Arabia’s murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. The initiative is run by Saudi Arabia’s main sovereign wealth fund.
But Western attendees have flocked back to the event, an investor-friendly conference that has been called “Davos in the Desert.” The revival in attendance has happened despite Saudi Arabia’s leading role in the long and deadly war in Yemen – a conflict that has led to what the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs has called “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”
Cesar Jaramillo, a leading arms-control advocate and executive director of of Project Ploughshares, a Waterloo, Ont.-based disarmament group, criticized Mr. Harper for celebrating the Saudi LAV deal.
“What Mr. Harper vaguely calls a ‘manufacturing contract’ is in fact a destabilizing arms deal with one of the worst human-rights violators on the planet,” Mr. Jaramillo said.
He said that Mr. Harper’s visit to Saudi Arabia is happening almost exactly three years after Saudi agents murdered Mr. Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist. A declassified U.S. intelligence report released this year by the American government said Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved an operation to capture or kill Mr. Khashoggi in 2018 as part of a campaign to silence dissidents abroad.
Relations between Canada and Saudi Arabia remain extremely strained more than three years after a public falling-out. It began when Global Affairs Canada and Chrystia Freeland, who was minister of foreign affairs at the time, used Twitter to call for the immediate release of several imprisoned political activists in the kingdom.
The incident made for a sharp contrast with the friendly relations between the two countries under Mr. Harper’s government. Thomas Juneau, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, said he detects a jab at Mr. Trudeau’s government in the comments from the former Conservative prime minister.
“It’s an indirect but very clear swipe at the current government,” Prof. Juneau said of the Harper statement. “The message was, he had good relations and he created jobs out of that, unlike the current government.”
Anna Tomala, the chief of staff at Mr. Harper’s office, said on Monday that the former prime minister had nothing to add to his tweeted statement.
Neither Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau nor his department immediately responded to a request for comment on Mr. Harper’s remarks.
Canada-Saudi relations were put on hold after Ms. Freeland’s public criticism of the kingdom in 2018. In August that year, Saudi Arabia expelled Canada’s ambassador and recalled its own envoy to Canada. It also froze new trade and investment in Canada, began withdrawing Riyadh-funded Saudi students from Canadian universities, suspended Saudi Arabian Airlines flights to Toronto and stopped buying Canadian barley and wheat. The Saudis also reportedly instructed their central bank and state pension funds to sell off Canadian assets.
Prof. Juneau said he doesn’t see much political will in either Canada or Saudi Arabia to repair the relationship between the countries. He said the Trudeau government would be reluctant to court bad publicity by deepening ties with Riyadh after years of criticism over the LAV deal.
For the Saudis, he said, Canada serves as a useful object lesson for other countries that might consider criticizing the desert kingdom over its human-rights record.
“Keeping Canada in the penalty box has a certain value for the Saudi state,” Prof. Juneau said. “They have a strong interest in continuing to signal to other democratic states that if you criticize Saudi Arabia you will pay a price.”
Dennis Horak, a former Canadian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, said he doesn’t think the Middle East is a priority for the Trudeau government. He said it’s possible the Saudis could try to use Mr. Harper’s visit as a means of sending a message to Canada about the need to rebuild relations.
Mr. Harper is visiting three Gulf Coast countries during his trip: the United Arab Emirates, Oman and then Saudi Arabia.
He is not the first former world leader to attend the Future Investment Initiative. Attendees in 2017, the year before Mr. Khashoggi’s death, included former French president Nicolas Sarkozy and former British prime minister Tony Blair.
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