Although there was great hope when he took power, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government has been a disappointment for Canada’s progressive left, at least in terms of policy, if not always in terms of rhetoric. While in certain areas it’s obvious that the Liberals are much better than the Conservative government that proceeded them, by for example, creating gender parity in the Prime Minister’s Cabinet for the first time in Canada’s history and joining an exclusive club of five nations that have achieved this win for equality, at least at the top.
Nonetheless, far too many promises made by Trudeau while on the campaign trail have either been reversed or quietly ignored since his election in 2015.
Like most of the other, mostly larger, economic powers promoting the neo-liberal model of economics, Canada’s government has consistently shown that it is far a better friend to big business than to working people or the country’s marginalized communities, especially its long suffering First Nations. This has been true since at least the 1980s, whether those in charge called themselves ‘Liberal’ or ‘Conservative’.
In terms of the environment, Canada’s extractive industries remain near the front of the pack at home and abroad in their mad dash to rip every possible resource out of the earth to line their pockets, despite everything our internationally popular Prime Minister might say about meeting our commitments in terms of the Paris Climate Treaty.
This is all to say that if the country was going to live up to its reputation as a kinder and gentler nation than most of its peers, it would probably be by accident. And, in just such a case, over the last week, the Canadian government has become embroiled in a war of words with one of the most despicable regimes in the world, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA).
War by tweet?
The spat may be confusing to some, especially those in Western media who have been presenting the de facto ruler of the country, Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS), as a ‘reformer’. Most often cited in this regard is his successful push to allow women to drive in the KSA, although his reining in of the powers of the Kingdom’s reactionary Wahhabist religious authorities (mainly to consolidate more power for himself) may be more consequential for ordinary Saudis if it holds over the longer term.
Like far too many arguments in our contemporary world, what became a diplomatic rupture was provoked by a tweet: “Canada is gravely concerned about additional arrests of civil society and women’s rights activists in #SaudiArabia, including Samar Badawi. We urge the Saudi authorities to immediately release them and all other peaceful #humanrights activists,” wrote Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland on August 3rd, using language simlar to many such criticisms made by Canadian Foreign Ministers in the past through different mediums.
The KSA’s reaction to the tweet mirrored recent dust ups with Germany and Sweden, who both seemed to wilt under the pressure. The KSA retaliated for Freeland’s mild criticism by expelling Canada’s Ambassador, ending flights to Toronto on the country’s national airline, Saudia, and recalling students and medical patients receiving treatment from the country.
The reason why Badawi is mentioned by name in the Foreign Affairs tweet is presumably because her sister in law, Ensaf Haidar, whose husband, Raif Badawi is serving 15 years in prison for his own human rights activism in the Kingdom, is a Canadian citizen.
As Lynn Maalouf, Amnesty International’s Middle East research director put it recently, speaking about Badawi and Nassima al-Sadah, another activist detained with her, “These brave women represented the last vestiges of the human rights community in the country, and now they too have been detained. Saudi Arabia’s new leadership under Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has crushed any space for the existence of human rights defenders in the country.”
Interestingly, many commentators argued that using Twitter in this way was the real problem rather than the fact that innocent women are sitting in Saudi jails for the crime of demanding only that which is guaranteed to them under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The hand-wringing reminds one of the days long debate over ‘civility’ on American cable networks in late June, as if ruining a powerful person’s dinner is as great a crime as children being separated from their families on the U.S. southern border.
As reported by multiple outlets, someone at a Saudi youth organization believed to be tied to the government quickly tweeted out an image of an airplane flying toward Toronto’s largest building with the words, “As the Arabic saying goes: ‘He who interferes with what doesn’t concern him finds what doesn’t please him.’”
While the organization, Infographic KSA, apologized and removed the plane from the image, the seeming threat of a 9/11 style attack sent shivers down the spines of those who couldn’t help but remember that the atrocities of that day were overwhelmingly the work of Saudi nationals.
In a rare public acknowledgement of the militaristic road that Canada has taken in recent years, many voices in government and the business press were more concerned about the loss of a $13 billion USD deal struck by General Dynamics Canada to provide light armored vehicles to the KSA than what the Kingdom would probably use them for, whether to oppress their Shia population at home or continue the brutal campaign across the KSA’s border in Yemen. As of this writing, the deal still stands.
In terms of allies, Canada’s most powerful ones have remained suspiciously silent, perhaps to protect their own lucrative arms deals with the KSA. In terms of the United States, whose leader has his own problems with Canada, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told the press that the American government would not take a side, “Both sides need to diplomatically resolve this together. We can’t do it for them; they need to resolve it together.”
Other allies have tried to ignore the situation altogether, creating another risk in terms of Riyadh’s behavior on the world stage, as James Dorsey, a fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies told France24. “The failure of Western allies to rally around Canada in its dispute with Saudi Arabia risks luring the kingdom into a false belief that economic sanctions will shield it from, if not reverse mounting criticism of its human rights record and conduct of the war in Yemen.”
In the days after the spat began, Riyadh’s claims have become more and more bizarre, recently complaining that one of Canada’s weirdest public intellectuals, Jordan Peterson, an academic turned celebrity championed on the right for refusing to do the easiest thing in the world, using the personal pronouns preferred by his students when speaking to them, is ‘a prisoner of conscience’. Then again, Peterson has built his celebrity on just the type of misogyny established as law in the KSA.
He is not, however, in any way, a ‘prisoner of conscience’.
MBS: An autocrat, not a reformer
Having watched his meteoric rise over the past few years, I’ve come to the conclusion that the 32 year old Crown Prince’s confidence is only matched by his lack of concern with cruelty inflicted on others by his order or in his name. This is not only fully on display in the war in Yemen that he was a main driver of, but in his turning Riyadh’s Ritz Carlton hotel into a temporary torture chamber for the country’s elite, many of them members of his own extended family.
Then there was the time his security services kidnapped the Prime Minister of Lebanon and forced his temporary resignation.
This is a country that just crucified, yes, you read that right, a foreign national and whose recent air-strike in a Yemeni market hit a bus packed with children under the age of 15, killing at least 29 of them.
In terms of Canada’s relations with the KSA, hopefully, Trudeau and his government will stand their ground and the rift with the country will widen until it becomes clear that Saudi Arabia isn’t important enough by any metric to make the country compromise its collective morals by having anything to do with this evil regime, now led by a reckless and decadent playboy, in the first place.