Are Canada and the US treating Saudi Arabia any differently?

As Michael Petrou argues, Canada’s decision to uphold its arms deal with the kingdom, despite the war in Yemen and now the death of Jamal Khashoggi, is not completely unexpected. But it is far from the foreign policy approach Trudeau once promised.

By: /
October 22, 2018
An activist holds an image of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi during a demonstration outside the White House in Washington, DC, on October 19, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis

Among the few people to emerge elevated from the global outrage over the apparent torture and murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul are Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the country’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland.

In August, Freeland tweeted her alarm that Samar Badawi, sister of jailed Saudi dissident Raif Badawi, had been detained in Saudi Arabia. Raif’s wife, Ensaf Haidar, and their children are Canadian citizens. “Canada stands together with the Badawi family in this difficult time,” Freeland wrote, “and we continue to strongly call for the release of both Raif and Samar Badawi.”

Saudi Arabia freaked out, pulling its ambassador, freezing trade and recalling its students from Canadian schools.

Canada took some flak at the time for its stand. Ex-Conservative foreign affairs minister John Baird, who has a position on the advisory board for Barrick, a mining firm with interests in Saudi Arabia, said Trudeau should fly to Riyadh and apologize. Writing in the Times Colonist, Lawrie McFarlane accused Freeland of committing “one of the worst diplomatic gaffes in recent times.” But, as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof put it recently, referring to Khashoggi’s disappearance, “subsequent events underscore that Canada was right all along.” 

The Globe and Mail last week invited readers to “compare how Ms. Freeland handled the Badawi case with how Donald Trump is handling the case of Jamal Khashoggi.”

Yes, let’s, because little of this praise is justified.

The difference between Trump, Trudeau and Freeland on this issue is one of language, not substance. Trump is a boor. Trudeau and Freeland sound more nuanced. But their actions on Saudi Arabia are remarkably similar.

Trump was eviscerated for saying he would not cancel US$110 billion worth of military equipment sales to Saudi Arabia over Khashoggi. Here, his critics said, was proof that, under Trump, America can be bribed to cast aside morality. And they’re right. But Ottawa can be bought, too.

Canada also sells military hardware to Saudi Arabia. A $15 billion deal to export light armoured vehicles was approved under Canada’s previous Conservative government and upheld by its current Liberal one.

"The difference between Trump, Trudeau and Freeland on this issue is one of language, not substance."

Freeland said last week her government will not consider canceling the deal: “When it comes to existing contracts, our government believes strongly that Canada’s word has to matter. And it’s important for Canada’s word to last longer than any one particular government.” This makes a certain amount of sense, but it’s hardly brave or principled.

Freeland’s August tweet about Samar Badawi was the right thing to do. And even after Saudi Arabia’s overreaction, Freeland stood her ground — although it’s fair to wonder if, had she known how Saudi Arabia would react, Freeland might have softened her initial statement.

Both Freeland and Trudeau were slow to say anything about Khashoggi’s disappearance. (On October 6, four days after Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate and didn’t come out — at least not whole — Trudeau tweeted his support for National Newspaper Week without mentioning the name of a newspaper writer who appeared to have been murdered for doing his job.)

But Freeland has now explicitly condemned Khashoggi’s killing and said Saudi Arabia’s explanations lack credibility and consistency. (Saudi Arabia initially claimed Kashoggi left its Istanbul consulate alive, then claimed he died in a “fist fight,” and finally on Sunday admitted he was murdered but blamed a “rogue operation” of which Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman was unaware.)

Freeland’s condemnation was a necessary gesture but ultimately, without teeth, an empty one. Saudi Arabia will not be shamed into respecting human rights. But it may do so if it recognizes that there is a cost to committing these sorts of abuses (and other, far worse ones, in Yemen), and a benefit to changing its behaviour. Such a cost could come from sanctions, criminal charges, and, yes, cancelled or frozen arms deals.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday said German arms exports to Saudi Arabia “can’t take place in the current circumstances.” But Trudeau has decided that imposing a cost on Saudi Arabia by cancelling the light armoured vehicle deal isn’t worth the harm that would rebound on to Canada.

This isn’t an unusual position. There is a realist school of thought that says a country’s foreign policy should be guided solely by its interests, not its values. Canada has an interest in upholding norms that prevent the (alleged) state-sanctioned murder of dissident journalists. But, a realist might argue, it has a greater interest in the money and jobs accruing from selling military equipment to a state that allegedly sanctioned such a murder.

The problem is this isn’t how Trudeau has portrayed Canada’s role in the world.

“Many of you have worried that Canada has lost its compassionate and constructive voice in the world over the past 10 years,” Trudeau said at a rally shortly after the 2015 election. “Well, I have a simple message for you: on behalf of 35 million Canadians, we’re back.”

Putting aside the disputable claim that Canada was not a compassionate or constructive voice in the world before he became prime minister, Trudeau’s statement suggested Canada’s approach to foreign policy would fundamentally change. It hasn’t. It’s about time members of his government stopped getting credit for speaking as if it has.