The Trudeau government is losing its human rights battle with the Saudis—and missing a huge opportunity

Terry Glavin: Ottawa has much to gain by doubling down in defence of imprisoned activists. Why is it reduced to forelock-tugging and flattery?

It’s not a happy assessment of the current state of play in Saudi Arabia’s cynical barrage of attacks on Canada, and it might not be too late for Justin Trudeau’s government to stiffen its spine and turn things around, but let’s face it. The Saudis are winning.

This is nothing like a “trade spat” and it’s got nothing to do with “diplomacy by Twitter.” It would not be putting too fine a point on it to call the Saudis’ carefully calibrated mayhem an act of diplomatic terrorism. Requiring only a pretext to put it all in motion, the House of Saud found one in a brief and otherwise run-of-the-mill statement that the Canadian embassy in Riyadh released on Friday, August 3—in Arabic—to the embassy’s 12,000 followers on Twitter.

“Canada is gravely concerned about additional arrests of civil society and women’s rights activists in #SaudiArabia, including Samar Badawi. We urge the Saudi authorities to immediately release them and all other peaceful #humanrights activists.”

That was it.

That’s the “blatant interference in the Kingdom’s domestic affairs” that the Saudi foreign affairs ministry blew a gasket about, falsely and preposterously claiming that it was a violation of “basic international norms and all international protocols.” Then there was this threat, aimed specifically at Canada, but by implication at every other democracy: “Any further step from the Canadian side in that direction will be considered as acknowledgement of our right to interfere in Canadian domestic affairs.”

Then the Saudis acted. Riyadh recalled its ambassador from Ottawa and told Canadian ambassador Dennis Horak he had 24 hours to leave the country. All further trade and investment was to be dropped. Saudi students in Canada—there are roughly 15,000 of them—were ordered to leave the country. All Saudi medical exchange programs were cancelled. Then a boycott of Canadian wheat, then an order to Saudi asset managers to dump Canadian bonds, equities and cash holdings “no matter the cost.”

RELATED: ‘The Saudis suck on human rights.’ How the world sees Saudi Arabia.

There has been quite a barrage of hyper-partisan cheap shots fired at Trudeau these past few days, to the effect that the Saudi uproar is of a piece with his catastrophic magical mystery tour across India last February. Or that somehow Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland is at fault, and not the House of Saud’s thuggish senior consigliere, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the Butcher of Yemen.

Still, it’s not easy to subject the current state of play to any objective assessment that does not lead to the conclusion that the Saudis are winning, hands down. The crown prince has friends in all the right places. He’s a close confidante of U.S. President Donald Trump’s soft-palmed, jet-setting son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and the regime is giving every impression that so far, in its horsewhipping of Canada, it’s quite pleased with itself. The Saudis have rallied Russia’s Vladimir Putin to their cause, along with Jordan, Pakistan, the Palestinian Authority, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and all those Muslim-majority states still distinguished by relations with Riyadh that run along a spectrum from servility to slavishness.

The Kremlin summed up the grossly disingenuous standpoint of the world’s tyrant states quite succinctly: “We consistently and firmly advocate compliance with universal human rights, with due regard for the specific national customs and traditions that developed in a given country over a long period of time. We have always said that the politicization of human rights is unacceptable.”

In Ottawa, meanwhile, the Trudeau government has been reduced to backing off without being obvious about it, saying sorry without saying sorry, and even resorting to forelock-tugging and flattery. Canada will of course continue to “speak out,” Trudeau said last Wednesday, but he also said this of Saudi Arabia: “This is a country that has some importance around the world. It is making progress when it comes to human rights.”

RELATED: It’s time for Canada to take the next step against Saudi Arabia

Not according to the dystopian kingdom’s civil rights activists it isn’t. And not to Amnesty International, nor to Human Rights Watch Saudi Arabia researcher Hiba Zayadin: “Since Mohammed bin Salman has ascended to power, there’s been an intensified repression of dissent.”

Freeland has been obliged to go begging for mediation assistance from Theresa May’s profoundly dysfunctional government in the United Kingdom, as well as from the effectively comatose U.S. State Department. Not a shred of solidarity was on offer anyway: it was all just a dispute between “friends” and “allies.” In other words, it wasn’t anybody else’s business. The European Commission stuck its neck out only so far as to say it was “seeking clarification” about the bedlam of arrests underway throughout Saudi Arabia’s civil society groups. Other than that, this was what the EC’s Maja Kocijancic had to say about Canada’s predicament: “We don’t comment on bilateral relations.”

As far as bilateral relations with Canada are concerned, the Saudis are interested only in capitulation. “There is no need for mediation,” said Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir. “A mistake was made and it should be corrected. Canada has made a mistake and needs to fix it.” Al-Jubeir’s views were then immediately ventriloquized and elaborated upon by former Conservative foreign affairs minister John Baird. In an interview broadcast by the Saudis’ own Al-Arabiya network, Baird came across partly like a spokesman for the Saudi foreign ministry, and partly like a celebrity spokesman for Barrick Gold, a Canadian multinational conglomerate with substantial mining interests in Saudi Arabia. Barrick retains Baird as an “international adviser.”

That sort of thing—plain venality and partisan hackery—is another reason why everything is going Riyadh’s way. A final indignity: Canada will continue to buy oil from the Saudis’ state-owned petrochemical behemoth, Aramco, because the Saudis don’t want to disrupt global oil markets. As a purported global leader in the campaign for fossil-fuel reduction, Canada might have taken the opportunity to tell the Saudis to keep their damn oil, we have enough of our own. But we didn’t.

RELATED: Canada serves as convenient example for Saudi Arabia’s rising ruler

All indications are that Canada will further debase itself by keeping its end of the secretive bargain involving those “jeeps” Canadians were told they were selling to the Saudis via a $15 billion contract with General Dynamics Land Systems, which turned out to be heavily-armoured crowd-control personnel carriers with mobile gun batteries and anti-tank capacity.

The thing to keep your eye on is that the Canadian embassy statement that set things off, and the similar statement Freeland had made the day before, were merely reiterations of an appeal articulated by no less than the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, earlier that week. The OHCHR’s July 31 statement called upon the House of Saud to release all the feminists and civil rights champions it has been lately rounding up by the busload and throwing into prison.

Not the least of these is the brave and internationally celebrated Samar Badawi, jailed on July 30. Badawi’s brother, the secularist Raif Badawi, is serving a ten-year prison term for “apostasy” and “insulting Islam.” His wife Ensaf Haidar and their three children are Canadian citizens.

It’s not so straightforward a matter as the Saudis winning, and Canada losing. The international human-rights regime, ostensibly led by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, is also taking a drubbing. If Canada decides to behave itself the way the White House and Downing Street and the Saudis would want, all those Arab human rights activists will lose, too. The way the exiled Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi puts it, the kind of intervention Freeland and the embassy made “restores their hope that someone out there does indeed still care.” The Saudis aren’t exactly interested in getting anybody’s hopes up.

The other thing to notice is that the House of Saud’s reactionary grip on the world’s Sunni states is steadily slipping. Riyadh is increasingly paranoid about an Arab Spring erupting in Islam’s birthplace. For the first time in its history, the Saudi “royal family” lives in dread of widespread democratic demands that it loosen its vicious, tyrannical grip on the people of the Arabian peninsula. Resigned to transforming its endgame reliance on oil wealth by opening up its economy, securing foreign investment in megaprojects and boosting its sovereign wealth fund to $400 billion over the next two years, the House of Saud is perilously vulnerable to tectonic political upheaval these days.

RELATED: Human rights not an obstacle for Donald Trump in Saudi Arabia

The whole point in giving Canada such a public thrashing is it was something the Saudis could afford—annual bilateral trade is about $4 billion. The lesson Mohammad bin Salman intends to teach the world’s craven, quivering, leaderless democracies: if you want in on the coming boom of our sovereign wealth funds and our imminent $2 trillion public listing of Aramco and all the rest, then you better play by our rules.

But standing up to the Saudis is something Canada can afford, too.


“We do not have a single friend in the whole entire world,” Rachel Curran, a former director of policy to prime minister Stephen Harper claimed the other day. That’s not true.

It is true that the cause of universal human rights has few serious friends among NATO’s presidents and prime ministers at the moment. It’s also true that the Liberal Party has a long way to go in shedding the intellectual and moral slovenliness that has encumbered its foreign policy, particularly in regards to the despotism in Beijing.

But Canada is not alone.

The Washington Post published its first-ever editorial in Arabic the other day. Its subject was the Saudis’ diplomatic and trade tantrum, and its point: The world should stand with Canada. The New York Times has come out swinging on Canada’s behalf. So has the Guardian in Britain: “It is in European countries’ own interests to stand together and tell the crown prince that such actions are not cost-free for Saudi Arabia.”

Often in spite of himself, Trudeau has cultivated a tremendous amount of good will and public affection throughout the NATO countries. With the United States now stuck in one of the darker moments of its decade-long retreat from global leadership in the cause of democracy, there are still quite a few Democrats and Republicans in Congress who would be pleased to turn the tables on Riyadh. The Brookings Institution’s Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst, says Canada should seize the opportunity the Saudi conniptions have presented: “I would stand firm.”

If the mantle of global leadership has fallen to a handful of democrats like Trudeau, then that’s what we’ll have to work with. Now that the Saudi hostility has pretty well cemented the pointlessness of Canada’s debilitating efforts at a seat on the UN Security Council, there’s no shame in making the best of the cards we’ve just been dealt.

The majority of Canadians never seem to see any of the fabulous wealth that trade with gangster states like China, Saudi Arabia and Iran is supposed to entail anyway. It’s a good bet that Canadians would be pleased to have Ottawa seize this opportunity and stand up to a bully like Mohammad bin Salman.

Canada didn’t pick this fight, but we’re in the thick of it. It would be a long haul, but the least we might do, if we genuinely believe what we say, is to put up some kind of proper fight in response.


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