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Canada under pressure over $15bn arms deal with Saudi Arabia

Despite protests of the arms deal, Canada says 'what's done is done'
The multi-billion dollar deal involves manufacturing and sending light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia (Wikipedia)

TORONTO – Canada has no plans to review a $15bn weapons contract with Saudi Arabia, the foreign minister has said, despite calls from Canadians and human rights groups to cancel the deal after the kingdom executed dozens of people last weekend.

Stephane Dion told the national public broadcaster this week “what is done is done".

“We have said during the campaign, the prime minister has been very clear, that we would not cancel this contract or contracts that have been done under the previous government in general,” Dion said on CBC’s Power & Politics.

“We will review the process by which these contracts are assessed in the future. But what is done is done, and the contract is not something that we’ll revisit.”

The comments come amid growing pressure on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s new government to look into the multi-billion-dollar deal that will see Ontario-based company General Dynamics Land Systems’ export light armoured vehicles (LAVs) to Saudi Arabia.

About 500 people protested at the Canadian parliament building on Wednesday calling on Ottawa to cancel the trade deal. Protesters also condemned the killing of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, who was among 47 prisoners executed in Saudi Arabia on 2 January.

A deal ‘contingent on secrecy’

Canada’s then minister of trade, Ed Fast, first revealed details of the agreement – the largest weapons export contract in Canadian history – in 2014. Fast said at the time that the deal would bring 3,000 jobs to southern Ontario.

A federal crown corporation, Canadian Commercial Corp, which also acts as the main contractor supplying the LAVs, brokered the agreement.

“The money flows through Canadian Commercial Corporation. It is by no means a private contract in the usual sense, and the government is very much involved,” said Ken Epps, an arms trade treaty policy advisor at anti-war group Project Ploughshares.

Epps told Middle East Eye the contract is expected to span 10 years and equipment shipments may begin later in 2016. The exact number of vehicles being manufactured remains unconfirmed, he said, but the size of the contract leads him to estimate “it’s going to be in the hundreds, if not thousands”.

A recently reported side deal General Dynamics Land Systems holds with a Belgian company that makes turrets and cannons also signals that “a tank on wheels” will be among the LAVs being sent overseas, Epps said.

The Globe and Mail reported last year that the deal was “contingent on secrecy".

Stephen Harper, Canada’s former prime minister, personally promised the Saudi government to keep the details of the sale under wraps, the newspaper said.

Ottawa had also reportedly not conducted a review of the Saudi human rights record prior to the 2014 announcement, a requirement under federal export laws when military equipment is being shipped to countries “with a persistent record of serious violations of the human rights of their citizens”.

Those regulations oblige Canada to demonstrate “that there is no reasonable risk that the goods might be used against the civilian population” in the importing country.

“The risk of course that [the Canadian government is] taking by closing off any revisiting of the contract is that this equipment will be used either in Yemen or internally in Saudi Arabia,” Epps said, “and it’ll come back to haunt the government.”

Saudi Arabia an ‘important partner’ for Canada

Dion, the foreign minister, “decried” the recent executions in Saudi Arabia and said in a statement that Ottawa “raises concerns over human rights and due process” with Saudi officials regularly.

“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is an important partner for Canada in efforts to counter terrorism, in contributions to the international coalition combating ISIL [Islamic State] militants and in international efforts to find a political solution in Syria,” Dion said in another release after he met Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Adel Al Jubeir in Ottawa in mid-December.

The strategic importance of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council countries was mentioned again in a government-briefing book obtained by The Canadian Press through an Access to Information Request.

Federal officials reportedly advised Trudeau to strengthen ties Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, CP reported on Thursday, as this “would serve Canadian commercial and possibly security interests".

“Current bilateral engagement includes a particular focus on Saudi Arabia and the UAE,” the memo states. “Saudi Arabia is a regional power, the only Arab country in the G20. It is a key contributor to global energy security and Canada's largest trading partner in the region.”

Anthony Fenton, a PhD candidate at York University in Toronto researching the political economy of Canada-GCC relations, said Canada and Saudi Arabia have had 50 years of strong diplomatic and economic ties.

Strengthening ties with Saudi Arabia today gives Canada "a seat at the table" and so long as the U.S. backs the Kingdom, so too will Ottawa. "Cultivating closer ties with the Saudis helps bolster Canada's standing as a emerging, secondary imperialist power," he told Middle East Eye in an e-mail interview.

Fenton said it's not only the arms deal that ties Canada to Saudi Arabia; Canadian engineering firm SNC-Lavalin has 7,000 employees in the Kingdom, a US-Saudi firm recently bought the former Canadian Wheat Board, and GCC countries - Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular - are categorized as a "priority" market for Canada, among other examples.

And there has been no indication that this will change under the Trudeau government, Fenton said.

"The same state functionaries who worked so hard to cultivate these ties under Harper will see no reason to take the wind out of the Canada-GCC sails, and appear to have advised the new government accordingly," he said.

"I see no reason to expect this to change, so long as the petrodollars are flowing, and the GCC states are at war (be it against other states, IS, etc., or against their own people)."

A recent review of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is being kept confidential in Ottawa, The Globe and Mail reported. A request for comment from MEE to Global Affairs Canada was not immediately returned on Friday.

But Alex Neve, head of Amnesty International Canada, told the newspaper that the results of any assessment need to be shared publicly. He also raised concerns about how the LAVs might be used by Saudi forces if protests erupt again in the Shia community in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces.

“How will Saudi authorities react to that? What equipment and weaponry will they resort to? Is there a potential that armoured vehicles of this sort could be used in ways that cause or contribute to human rights violations?” said Neve, who has been using the hashtag #ExplainTheDeal on Twitter.

Epps, meanwhile, called on Canada to implement existing regulations “to ensure that the Canadian equipment doesn’t get into the wrong hands".

“They called for transparency,” he said, referring to the Liberal party’s federal election campaign comments last year. “Well, this would be an opportunity for them to be more transparent by opening up and even potentially [holding] public hearings on what’s happening in Saudi Arabia.”

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