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Canada-Saudi ties thwarted from ‘return to business as usual’

  • Mohamed Hashem
  • 24 Dec 2018

Expelled Canadian ambassador to Saudi Arabia doesn’t think cancelling a major arms deal would be effective, as Khashoggi killing further complicates the relationship.

( Creative Commons )

The murder of Jamal Khashoggi “derailed” any attempts to mend ties between Canada and Saudi Arabia following a diplomatic feud last summer, according to Canada’s former envoy to Saudi Arabia.

“Given that sort of atmosphere right now [following Khashoggi murder], I think it’s hard to sort of argue for a return to business as usual as we have before,” Dennis Horak, Canada’s former ambassador to Riyadh, tells TRT World.

Horak was expelled from his post and declared persona-non-grata by the Saudi government last August, after the Canadian embassy tweeted, in Arabic, its concerns over the arrests of several women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia and asked for their “immediate release”.

The Saudi kingdom responded by freezing all new trade and investment deals with Canada;  halting all its state-airline flights to and from Toronto;  suspending its student exchange programs in Canada, and also recalled its own ambassador back to Riyadh. 

“Our relationship was already pretty shattered by the events of this summer,” Horak says.

“The Saudi reaction, the overreaction to a tweet was ridiculous.”

The relationship between the two countries further deteriorated following the recent murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was brutally killed and dismembered on October 2. A 15-man hit squad has been blamed for the killing inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. 

Last November, the Canadian government sanctioned 17 Saudi nationals believed to be connected to the murder. The US also sanctioned 17 Saudis, and the European Union imposed a Schengen-zone travel ban on 18 Saudis with alleged ties to the murder. 

Canada-Saudi arms deal  

Canada also faces growing calls to cancel an ongoing $12 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia. Earlier last week, Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, told local media that his government is looking for a way out of the deal. Trudeau’s latest comments stand in contrast with remarks he made in October saying that it would be “extremely difficult” to withdraw from the contract. 

Horak believes that by cancelling the deal, the Canadian government will only be hurting its own workers and sending an ineffective message in the process. 

“I don’t think it has any impact in Saudi Arabia,” he said.  

“The impact it would have would be on Canadian workers who would be thrown out of their jobs as a result of that”. 

Horak recommended that the Canadian government's efforts to condemn Saudi behaviour should instead be part of a collective front with its allies. 

“There’s no sense in us standing alone, we’re just not going to be listened to as effectively as part of a group,” he said. 

The contract - signed in 2014 by the previous Stephen Harper administration and later upheld by Trudeau’s Liberal government - is supposed to “create and sustain more than 3,000 jobs each year in Canada” over a 14-year period. 

If the Canadian government pulls out of its deal with the Saudis, it would join Germany who suspended selling arms to Saudi Arabia and canceled existing deals over the murder of Khashoggi. Shortly after Germany’s decision, Denmark and Finland announced that they would cancel any future arms exports to Saudi Arabia. 

MBS and the Khashoggi killing 

Last month, US officials revealed to several news outlets that the Central Intelligence Agency concluded that the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), was directly tied to the Khashoggi murder, assessing that he ordered the killing. 

For weeks after the Khashoggi murder, MBS - who has consolidated significant power and is widely believed to be the real power behind the throne - faced an international uproar over his suspected role in the killing. 

Reports later surfaced claiming that members of the ruling Al Saud family in Saudi Arabia were allegedly planning to sideline MBS and change the line of succession after the death of the current King Salman. 

Horak, who served as ambassador to Riyadh from 2015 till his expulsion last summer, said that rumours are constant in the Saudi capital, a lot of which need to be taken “with a grain of salt”.

“It’s very hard to know what goes on in the royal circles … A lot of people claim they know, but my own view is that those who know don’t say, those who say don’t know.” 

 Speaking on MBS, Horak said that the 33-year-old crown prince “remains popular” in Saudi Arabia thanks to some social reforms he planned and implemented since his rise to power. 

According to Horak, it was during his final year in Riyadh when he believes political moves made by MBS became disconcerting - citing the Ritz-Carlton crackdown; the arrest of women activists and the shrinking political space inside the country. 

When asked about the possibility of members of the royal family turning against MBS, Horak emphasised the risks of any such move:  

“If the royals are going to move on [MBS], they better be very, very confident that they will succeed because if they don’t, he’s going to be around for 50 years and a lot of them are still very privileged and they’re going to be putting that at risk.”

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