Skip to main content

Canada’s refusal to justify Saudi arms sales deepens sectarian hatred

If Ottawa is so convinced the arms deal is in the public’s interest, why not disclose all the details behind it?

There’s a good reason why Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper wants to keep us in the dark about Ottawa's $15bn arms deal with Saudi Arabia: we’re dancing with wolves. The purist, misogynistic Salafi school of thought that defines the Saudi government also gave rise to the very terrorists Canadian soldiers have been sent abroad to fight  – Islamic State (IS) and al Qaeda.

Human rights campaigners and arms control monitors were rightly alarmed last week when the Department of Foreign Affairs refused to make public the assessments it conducts to determine whether this deal - by far the largest export contract ever brokered - is compatible with Canada’s foreign policy goals or poses a risk to civilians in a country notorious for human rights abuses. It doesn’t seem to make any difference to Harper that he’s breaking his own department’s stated rules: the Foreign Affairs ministry is required to screen requests to export military goods to rogue countries. So much for the "open, transparent and accountable government” to which he’s professed his commitment.

Besides being hypocritical (why should Canadians be subjected to mass surveillance while their government continues to shroud itself in secrecy?), Harper doesn’t seem to understand that arms deals with pariah states like Saudi Arabia pose a direct threat to our national security and deepen sectarian tensions in the Middle East.

Every time the Harper government sells arms to Saudi or endorses a Saudi-backed military action, they are sending a clear-cut message to IS sympathisers in Canada and abroad: Canada endorses Salafism. Salafism being a superficial theology within Sunni Islam derived from the teachings of a ruthless religious reformist who lived in central Arabia in the mid-eighteenth century named Bin Abdul Wahhab (hence the alternative reference "Wahhabi"). 

Our tacit endorsement of the Saudi approach is conditional, of course, on continued multi-billion dollar arms sales that put Canada on the map as reputable global arms dealers (how’s that for a country with a once dovish international reputation?). While the Canadian public has remained largely unaware about the scale of Canada's arms exports to foreign governments for many years (come election time, foreign policy issues rarely become election issues) not everyone has been oblivious. Parliament Hill shooter Michael Zehaf-Bibeau issued a telling warning before shooting dead a Canadian soldier on ceremonial duty last October: “Canada has officially become one of our [IS] enemies by creating a lot of terror in our countries and killing our innocents.” 

But besides deploying fighter jets, airstrikes and soldiers to support Iraqi ground forces battling IS militants in Iraq and Syria over the last two years, the Harper government has also been inciting anti-Western sentiments through Canada’s quiet contribution to rising sectarianism tensions in the region. 

It’s a concept not lost on the Saudi government. For decades, the Saudis have been using anti-Shiism as a political tool at home and abroad to distract attention from their own shared principles with IS and al-Qaeda - the most prevalent being their intolerance for political dissenters and their contempt for Shia Muslims.

Thanks in part to the tactical and military support Saudi (and its tiny Gulf neighbour Bahrain) receive from Canada, anti-Shia sentiment is spreading like wildfire – first via Canadian support for the unilateral Saudi-led attack on Shia Houthis in Yemen, and previously through the sale of made-in-Canada light armoured vehicles (LAVs) that helped crush Arab Spring protests by Bahrain’s majority-Shia population in 2011.  

It’s not an exaggeration to say that many of the militants that join the uprisings in Syria and Iraq are motivated by a desire to take down Iranian influence – a foreign policy goal that the Harper government also shares. But sectarianism exists right in Saudi as well. As Jonathan Manthorpe, a former foreign correspondent with The Toronto Star, notes, the Saudi regime is buying LAVs not to defend the nation from foreign threats like IS, but to protect themselves from their own citizens.

Saudi royals have good reason to be fearful of a popular uprising on their own turf. Dissidents are comprised of mainly Shias living in the oil-rich eastern province, and their protests for reform have rung hollow for decades. Unlike the Arab Spring’s other disgruntled but unified movements that rose against inflation and food shortages, the Saudi Shia Muslims are a minority community that has been systematically discriminated against for decades through limited access to government employment and housing, and an educational system that instructs children to denounce Shias as rejectionists. Last month The Economist reported that a disturbing number of Saudi clerics peddle anti-Shia rhetoric without fear of arrest. Hours before the bombing of a Shia mosque near the city of Qatif killed 21 people last month, an Imam in Riyadh was quoted telling worshippers: “Allah, attack all the Shia everywhere; Allah, send them earthquakes; Allah, kill them all.”

It’s no wonder then, that the Saudi Crown Prince was confronted by an angry local last week during a visit to the town of al-Dawola after a second IS-claimed suicide attack on a Shia mosque killed four. Newspapers that promote hatred of Shia Muslims should be closed down, Mohammed Obaid, the brother of one of the victims, told Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. “If you do not do your part … you are a silent partner in this crime.” 

A Saudi newspaper columnist and mother of one of the victims, Kowther al-Arbash, also condemned the “sectarian hatred” that she said led to the attack. “Terrorism is not first born in its bloody form [as it appears now] – rather, it begins with ostracism and hatred. To make a killer, you must first pervert his heart and his thought.”

Perverting the hearts and minds of innocent, law-abiding Muslims is exactly what lies at the core of IS, al-Qaeda and the Saudi monarch. Harper needs to dump his love affair with Saudi Arabia as Sweden did earlier this year and replace it with a values-driven foreign policy. And besides - if Ottawa is so convinced the arms deal is in the public’s interest – why not disclose all the details behind it?

- Shenaz Kermalli is a Toronto-based journalist who specialises in geopolitics and human rights. She is a former producer and writer with BBC News, Al Jazeera English, and CBC News. Her work has been published in The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, CTV News, the Guardian's Comment is Free, Foreign Policy, The Huffington Post, and Muftah.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: File picture shows Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper