The Canadian prime minister may have condemned the actions of the Saudi regime, but his position over light-armoured vehicle sales to the kingdom tells us everything we need to know
Almost 5,000 miles from the city in which his corpse was secretly buried – in one piece or in bits – by his Saudi killers, Jamal Khashoggi’s murder now rattles the scruples and the purse-strings of yet another country.
For Canada, land of the free and liberal conscience – especially under Justin Trudeau – is suddenly confronted by the fruits of the bright young prime minister’s Conservative predecessors and a simple question of conscience for cash: should Trudeau tear up a 2014 military deal with Saudi Arabia worth $12bn?
When Ottawa decided to sell its spanking new light armoured vehicles (LAVs) to the Saudi kingdom, the Saudis already had a well-earned reputation for chopping off heads and supporting raving and well-armed Islamists. But Mohammed bin Salman had not yet ascended the crown princedom of this pious state.
The Saudis had not yet invaded Yemen, chopped off the heads of its Shia leaders, imprisoned its own princes, kidnapped the Lebanese prime minister and dismembered Khashoggi.
So the Conservative Canadian government of Stephen Harper had no scruples about flogging off its LAVs – as these little armoured monsters are called – to Riyadh, specifically for the “transport and protection” of government officials.
Now you can hardly accuse Trudeau of being a supporter of the Saudi regime. Back in August, Mohammed bin Salman’s lads ordered the expulsion of the Canadian ambassador to Riyadh and closed down trade agreements with Canada after Trudeau’s foreign minister had complained about the arrest of women’s rights campaigners in the kingdom.
The Canadians had made “false statements”, claimed the Saudis – whose own reputation for false statements would soon achieve proportions worthy of a Hollywood horror epic. Trudeau was in the Saudi doghouse as well as Washington’s because, only two months earlier, Trump had called him “dishonest and weak”.
So, of course, no sooner had Khashoggi been dispatched in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul than Canada’s liberal conscience bestirred itself. Surely now Trudeau must tear up the 2014 agreement for all those shiny light armoured vehicles which Harper flogged to the Saudis in 2014.
Alas, it turned out a few days ago, the deal included what Trudeau’s government has described as a prohibitive cancellation agreement which would – if the armoured vehicle transaction was completed – cost the Canadians billions of dollars.
It made economic sense, up to a point, but as with all things involving the Saudis these days, there was a “whoops!” factor.
For it turned out – alas, oh alas – that those harmless Canadian LAVs had been videotaped in the Saudi eastern province in 2017, putting down a Shia civilian rebellion. The Canadian foreign ministry – now, in a masterpiece of satire, renamed “Global Affairs Canada” – suspended arms exports and opened a “full and thorough investigation”.
Nowadays, we are all familiar with “full and thorough investigations” – like the one the Saudis are enthusiastically conducting into the demise of the secretly buried Khashoggi – and the Canadian version of an enquiry subsequently concluded that the vehicles from Canada had undergone post-export “modifications”.
Mohammed bin Salman was by this time running the show in Riyadh, and Trudeau was running the show in Ottawa. But now arrived, yet again, the Saudi “whoops!” factor.
The LAVs, it transpired, had been secretly kitted up with turrets and machine guns, and these vehicles were used in the 2017 operation in which 20 civilians had been killed.
But – and here was a deus ex machina to beat them all – the Global Affairs report added (with even further unconscious satire) that no human rights violations had occurred; that Saudi forces had made “efforts to minimise civilian casualties”; and that the use of force – readers, you guessed it – was “proportionate and appropriate”.
Thank heavens the Saudis were firing machine guns from those Canadian vehicles and not attacking their enemies with knives and bonesaws.
But now – and here the tired metaphor is oddly appropriate – the knife was twisted in Trudeau’s back. Step forth one Ed Fast, an opposition Canadian Conservative MP who, as the former international trade minister in Ottawa, helped to shepherd through the original lucrative arms deal with the Saudis.
The contractual arrangements had nothing to do with him. The penalties were inserted by General Dynamics Land Systems, which assembled these wretched machines in Ontario.
Besides, Fast added last weekend, the deal should be upheld; Canada should instead censure the Saudis by targeting the property of Saudi human rights offenders and end imports of Saudi oil. And increase the transshipment of Canadian oil from Alberta, which neighbours British Columbia where – whoops! – Fast happens to be an MP.
No one could have been enjoying this as much as the Saudis. For Ed Fast also relapsed into the mind-boggling diminution of Khashoggi’s murder. He described the chopping-up of the Saudi journalist in Istanbul and his secret burial by the Saudis as an “issue” and a “situation”. “Issue” as in “problem”, I suppose.
As for the Fast view of arms cancellation, it wouldn’t really “punish” the Saudis, and anyway – here we go again – Riyadh would only buy its armoured vehicles from other countries.
Dennis Horak, a former Canadian ambassador to Saudi Arabia – it’s odd how former western ambassadors to Riyadh have a habit of beating the drum for the Saudis – announced that cancellation would now “only serve to punish the 3,000-plus Canadian workers… who will see their high-skilled, middle class jobs disappear for a gesture with no consequences in Saudi Arabia”.
Such a message would be “lost on the Saudi leadership”. Selling armoured vehicles was not a favour but “a commercial transaction”. What we should do, announced Horak in the Toronto Star, is to “speak directly” to them: “Engage, rather than disengage”.
Who would believe that this was the same ambassador Horak whom the Saudis booted out of Riyadh only last August after the Canadian foreign affairs minister complained about the arrest of women activists in the kingdom? Does he want to go back, for heaven’s sakes?
It’s not difficult to spot the moral – or the immorality – of this tale. Arms will almost always win over murder.
Our “middle class” chaps and their families – for I mercifully haven’t noticed a lot of women among the CEOs of arms companies – must have their jobs secured, whatever the cost in dead Yemeni wedding parties, blitzed hospitals or chopped-up journalists.
And already, scarcely two weeks since we all learned for certain that Saudi consulates could perform more ambitious deeds than issue divorce papers, the cloth is being cut to fit the scruples of even the most liberal of western states. So that “issues” and “situations” don’t interfere in the “commercial transactions” of the global economy.
By Robert Fisk
This article was originally published by “The Independent”
The 21st Century