Explainer: Saudi-Canada relations before Riyadh's diplomatic spat

Explainer: Saudi-Canada relations before Riyadh's diplomatic spat
It's unclear what Riyadh hopes to gain by its forceful diplomatic moves against Ottawa for criticising the arrest of women's rights activist Samar Badawi.
5 min read
06 August, 2018
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a Broadway performance in New York [Getty]
Saudi Arabia, in a shock move, announced on Monday it was expelling Canadian ambassador Dennis Horak and recalling its own envoy in Ottawa in protest over "interference" in its internal affairs.

Saudi Arabia's foreign ministry made the announcement on Twitter after Canada demanded the immediate release of jailed women's rights activist Samar Badawi, who is also a sister of already jailed blogger Raif Badawi. 

Riyadh also said it would freeze new trade deals with Canada. The UAE, Bahrain and the Palestinian Authority said on Monday they agreed with Saudi Arabia's diplomatic stance. 

The diplomatic spat shows that Riyadh is increasingly unwilling to tolerate any outside criticism of its domestic affairs. But how significant is Ottawa's relationship with Riyadh, and will the diplomatic move cause Canadian officials to change tack?

Canada's military ties to Saudi Arabia

Trade between Canada and Saudi Arabia last year exceeded $4 billion (Canadian), much of it from a controversial arms deal penned in 2014 to sell combat vehicles to the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia is the top non-US destination for Canadian arms exports after the $15 billion (Canadian) 2014 deal was struck under the former Conservative government led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. As part of that deal, Canada will provide light armoured vehicles along with 119 "heavy assault" vehicles to the kingdom. 

The multibillion dollar arms deal remains relatively more significant to Canada than Saudi Arabia, which recently penned an arms deal with the United States totalling $110 billion. MbS

Saudia Arabia is also Canada's largest trade partner among the nine countries of the Arabian Peninsula and is its second-largest export market in the Middle East.

Domestic opposition to Saudi arms deal

But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's approval of the arms deal, citing honouring an agreement struck under a prior government, proved awkward for the progressive icon. Journalists, opposition MPs and the public largely opposed approving the agreement.

The more left-leaning New Democratic Party pointed to reports of the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen as evidence to cancel the sale of arms to Riyadh.

"We also think it [the arms deal] flies in the face of this feminist agenda of the Canadian government, which is now being sold as the centrepiece of Canadian foreign policy," Cesar Jaramillo, of the disarmament group Project Ploughshares, told The Guardian.
In February Canada's Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said there was no evidence to suggest Canadian vehicles were used to violate human rights in Saudi Arabia.
In response to significant domestic opposition, Canada's government launched an investigation into the agreement. In February Canada's Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said there was no evidence to suggest Canadian vehicles were used to violate human rights in Saudi Arabia. 

Critics noted that other Western countries cancelled arms sales to the kingdom amid human rights concerns. Germany and Belgium have in recent years denied arms exports to the kingdom, and Sweden cancelled a longstanding defence agreement with Saudi Arabia in 2015. 

The US factor

Canada and the US share the world's longest undefended border and have close economic, military and cultural ties.

Combined import-export totals between Canada and the US are near the top of the list for both countries. Trade is particularly crucial to the Canadian economy -- accounting for 64 percent of GDP last year, with more than 70 percent of Canada's exports flowing to the United States.

However, US President Donald Trump has increasingly tacked a hardline on trade against Canada and upset a close working relationship forged over decades.

In recent weeks, US negotiators have spurned Canada as Washington seeks to renegotiate NAFTA first with Mexico then use it as leverage to secure larger concessions from its northern neighbour. US Trade Represenative Robert Lighthizer reportedly dislikes his Canadian counterpart Freeland, upset about Ottawa's charm offensive targeting US lawmakers and the wider public. 

Talks to reform the 1994 free trade pact began in August 2017, but have dragged on as Mexico City and Ottawa push back against US demands for large concessions.

Just last month, Trump tweeted aboard Airforce One after a G7 summit that Trudeau was "very dishonest" and "weak" after the Canadian prime minister said all countries had agreed to a rather generic communique pledging to fight against the forces of protectionism. 

At the same time, US President Donald Trump has increasingly forged closer ties with Riyadh, including the $110 billion arms agreement struck in 2017. Some observers say the increasingly tense US-Canada relationship may have emboldened Saudi Arabia over its diplomatic spat with Canada. 

What about the exchange students?

Part of Monday's move is a Saudi decision to send more than 8,000 post-secondary exchange students and their 6,400 dependents back home. Most are under the King Abdullah scholarship programme and are a source of millions of dollars in international student fees and economic activity for Canada. 

The students will reportedly return to Saudi Arabia until a new placement is made.

However, academic terms generally begin in September across most Western countries, and observers have pointed out that welcoming thousands of Muslim Saudi exchange students may not play well to Trump's base. Relocation on such a scale to other Western countries like the UK may not be feasible either. 

Will Saudi's diplomatic move work?

Saudi Arabia's brash diplomatic move suggests Riyadh believes it will find support among some sectors of Canada's government or the international community.

However, Canadian journalists along with politicians across the political spectrum appear to be rallying behind the government's rather mild condemnation of Riyadh's arrest of Badawi. 

Agencies contributed to this report. 

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