Document reveals Canada’s undisclosed motives for arming Saudi Arabia

By Anthony Fenton & Martin Lukacs, The Breach, March 11, 2023

Cheap reliable oil, new markets for Canadian corporations, and a heavily-armed proxy for Western countries.

According to a document obtained by The Breach, these are among the reasons Justin Trudeau’s government continues to send massive amounts of weapons to Saudi Arabia.

Previously, Trudeau’s Liberal government has suggested it would like to get out of an ongoing, widely-criticized $15-billion deal to export militarized vehicles to the Middle Eastern dictatorship.

But its internal analysis indicates that it in fact believes the weapons business is crucial to maintaining Saudi Arabia as an “integral and valued security partner.”

The seven-page, partially-redacted document, marked “secret” and obtained by The Breach through an access to information request, details Ottawa’s rationale for arms sales to the Saudis with a frankness never seen before.

The analysis, written by officials at Global Affairs Canada, notes the Saudis are a “principle guarantor” of affordable oil for western countries.

Saudi Arabia has also become an “important market for Canadian companies,” including through large infrastructure contracts for SNC-Lavalin and Bombardier.

Arming the Saudis makes them a “regional bulwark” against Iran, as well as reduces the need for potential Canadian and allied troop deployments in the Middle East.

The document only briefly acknowledges the regime’s “problematic” human rights record, which has included a brutal war on neighbouring Yemen that has taken hundreds of thousands of lives. 

The power politics are a far cry from what Trudeau’s government publicly touts as its “feminist foreign policy.”

Dictatorship a ‘major security and strategic partner’

Although Trudeau has insisted it would be “very difficult” to cancel the weapons deal, the document notes that the foreign affairs minister has the option not to issue new export permits because of “broader foreign policy considerations.”

But far from questioning the value of arming a country ruled by religious fundamentalists where women are second class citizens, the government’s analysis makes a strong geo-political case in favour of it.

It asserts that Canada, along with its key partners the United States and the United Kingdom, see Saudi Arabia as a “major security and strategic partner.” 

The regime is a “principal guarantor of global energy security and ensures access to the affordable energy essential for economic growth in the West,” it notes.

The United States has long provided military protection to the Saudi royal family in exchange for a reliable supply of oil. 

Canadian refiners spent $3.6 billion on oil imports from Saudi Arabia in 2022, according to data from Statistics Canada.

No ‘substantial risk’ of Saudi abuses: government

On the strength of its sale of light armoured vehicles (LAVs) to the Saudis, Canada has become the second-biggest arms dealer to the Middle East. 

While the deal was initially signed by the Conservative government of Stephen Harper in 2014, it was green-lit by the Trudeau government after it came to office.

Trudeau and United Nations ambassador Bob Rae have downplayed the LAVs as “jeeps,” but they are heavy assault combat vehicles that can destroy tanks and even aircraft.

In the past decade, Saudis have used the LAVs to put down pro-democracy protests in Bahrain in 2011 during the Arab Spring. They have also deployed Canadian-made vehicles in military operations against the minority Shia community in the eastern part of the country. 

siege on the town of Awamiyah in 2017 demolished an entire neighbourhood, killed two dozen people and displaced tens of thousands, according to Human Rights Watch and United Nations investigators.

Then-foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland expressed being “very concerned” about executions of arrested civil society activists. 

Though there was video of Canadian vehicles rolling through the town’s streets, a few months later Freeland claimed there  “was no conclusive evidence” that they had been used in the attack and restored export permits that had briefly been suspended.

But after the regime orchestrated the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, a global outcry brought heightened scrutiny to western weapons deals. 

Several European countries halted sales to the country.

On their heels, the Liberal government temporarily froze new export permits for the light armoured vehicles and undertook a review of its own sales.

In 2020, the government made public its final report, which was criticized by Amnesty International for claiming that there was “no substantial risk” that Canadian weapons would be used for human rights violations.

Canada lifted its freeze, and other countries like Germany followed suit.

The document obtained by The Breach is an annex to this 2020 report—entitled “Additional Policy Considerations”—that was not released by the government. 

Global Affairs Canada did not respond to a question from The Breach about why one section of the report was not made public.

Saudi Arabia alliance a long-term ‘investment’

According to the government analysis, western countries have “invested a lot financially and militarily in the relationship over the decades,” and want to keep Saudi Arabia “oriented to a Western rules-based worldview.” 

The document makes clear that Canada’s commitment to arming the regime dates back more than 30 years: “The underlying rationale for supplying military equipment to partners in the Middle East is a direct consequence of the West’s involvement in the first major Gulf War.”

Canada made the West’s fourth-largest military contribution to that war in 1990-91, sending 4,500 personnel, warships, and fighter jets. 

Arms sales can help Saudi Arabia “become more self-reliant for their own defence,” the document notes, which would “reduce future requirements for large scale Western military missions, to ensure stability in the Gulf, and to prevent a breakdown in regional order that could harm the global economy by endangering the supply of affordable oil.”

The Canadian government’s efforts to sell armoured vehicles date back to the 1980s, but it was after the Gulf War that the first export deal was inked.

More than 3,000 Canadian-made vehicles have since been sold to the Kingdom, according to Statistics Canada.

The internal analysis also notes Saudi Arabia’s regional importance, describing the country as a “bulwark against attempts by Iran to expand its influence in the region.” 

The document alludes to Canada’s support for the Saudi coalition in the war against Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who are believed to be backed politically and militarily by Iran. 

It suggests “instability in Yemen poses a direct threat” to Saudi Arabia, neglecting to mention the destruction the Saudi regime has caused in Yemen.

The United Nations estimated in 2021 that the Saudi coalition had killed 377,000 people in Yemen, directly or by inducing widespread famine, after seven years of war. 

Saudi-led airstrikes have hit schools, hospitals, and food depots, with a UN panel finding “widespread and systematic” attacks on civilian targets. 

report from Amnesty International concluded that there was “persuasive evidence that weapons exported from Canada to (the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia), including (light armoured vehicles) and sniper rifles, have been diverted for use in the war in Yemen.”

Videos and social media posts have showed images of Saudi troops using LAVs and Canadian guns within Yemeni territory.

A tenuous ceasefire has held for the last year.

Canada, Saudis strengthen ties

The government analysis also laments the negative impact on Canadian companies of a diplomatic rift between the Saudis and Canada, after Freeland tweeted again that she was “extremely concerned” by the arrests of women’s rights activists in the summer of 2018. 

Saudi authorities began finding substitutes for Canadian companies in pharmaceuticals, health, transportation, finance, infrastructure, and many food products, the document outlines.

Despite the war of words, Canadian weapons exports and Saudi oil imports continued apace, according to Statistics Canada.

The annex notes that an “improvement of relations with the [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia] would greatly assist Canada’s UN Security Council candidacy,” which Canada was ultimately unsuccessful in winning.

More recently, however, Canadian relations with Saudi Arabia are normalizing.

Last year, The Breach reported in an investigation that the Canadian government quietly bought two aircraft for $130 million for a fleet used by the prime minister from a shadowy company controlled by Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Just weeks ago, SNC-Lavalin announced a five-year consultancy contract to provide services for a futuristic city being planned by bin Salman.

Earlier this year, 40 Saudi and Canadian companies convened in Riyadh for a “Saudi-Canadian Health Care Forum,” which was endorsed by the Saudi government and was credited with “achieving a new positive outlook on relations between the two countries.” 

This followed on the heels of major corporate Canadian participation in Saudi Arabia’s “Future Minerals Forum” mining conference, where two Canadian companies signed joint ventures with Saudi Arabia.


Posted March 20, 2023