Saudi arms deal raises foreign policy challenge for Trudeau

Canada Politics

[Then prime minister Stephen Harper walks past a Light Armoured Vehicles 6.0 during a photo opportunity at General Dynamics Land Systems in London, Ont., May 2, 2014. REUTERS/Aaron Harris]

A $15 billion arms deal between a Canadian defence contractor and Saudi Arabia is one of the first big tests for the Trudeau government as it sets out its foreign policy approach.

The deal between London, Ont.-based General Dynamics Land Systems and the Saudi government, first announced in 2014, involves a number of armoured fighting vehicles destined for its national guard.

It was sanctioned by the previous Conservative government, yet Tony Clement, former Tory cabinet member and now Opposition foreign affairs critic, has been vocal in asking the new government to release its justifications for supporting the deal.

Canadian export controls place restrictions on exporting military goods to countries that are human rights abusers, a definition that would appear to include Saudi Arabia — where stoning, lashing and beheading are still punishments for crimes such as insulting the royal family.

“Canadians don’t want these weaponized vehicles to be used against innocents in Saudi Arabia,” Clement told the Globe and Mail. “We need to know, given this rapidly changing environment in the Middle East, that the weapons are going to be used for the purposes that are intended and that there has been sufficiently rigorous assessment of Saudi Arabia.”

Neither Clement nor the federal government responded to requests for comment on Friday.

Carleton University international affairs professor Stephen Saideman said in an email that the Conservatives are “revelling” in the trap they set for the incoming government.

“They made the deal, constraining the choices of the next government,” he said. “The Liberals have to figure out how to square their values with the costs of changing the commitments made by the prior government.”

Whatever hypocrisy the Liberals are engaging in, Saideman said, pales in comparison to that of the Conservatives.

General Dynamics Land Systems is a subsidiary of American defence contractor General Dynamics, and the Canadian outpost produces 26-tonne armoured vehicles equipped with 25-mm chainguns that were used by the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan, as well as mine-resistant vehicles and all-terrain track-driven trucks.

When the 14-year deal was announced in 2014, the Harper government said it would create and sustain more than 3,000 jobs.

The agreement was negotiated through the federal government-to-government contracting agency, the Canadian Commercial Corp.

University of Calgary professor Robert Huebert said that the controversy has arisen in part because Canada is exporting finished units of military hardware.

“The much more problematic issue for Canada is that our overall contribution tends to be in components,” he said.

If Canada wants to move beyond being a resource-based country, he said, that means investments in high-tech manufacturing and other sectors where products can be turned to military uses.

“We provide a lot of the subsystems for these kinds of applications,” he said. “That’s not to justify [this deal], just to put it in perspective.”

That is only one of the reasons it’s difficult for any government to draw lines when it comes to the international arms trade, he said. Many components are dual-use, some products are bought through shell companies or transferred through third parties, and it’s difficult to have a consistent rubric for labelling human rights abusers beyond the most extreme.

That the deal is with Saudi Arabia complicates matter further, he said, because of that country’s key role in the international system as the most important supplier of crude oil.

The value of a barrel of oil has dropped from above US$105 in June 2014 to below $35 in recent weeks, in large part because of Saudi Arabia’s sky-high production as it seeks to deter investment in alternative (and thus more costly) sources of oil.

“You piss off the Saudis at your peril,” he said.

And while U.S. President Barack Obama attended the funeral of King Abdullah in January 2015 as a sign of respect and the close relations between the two countries, Huebert said there’s good evidence to suggest that prominent Saudi citizens have played a fairly substantial role in funding Sunni terrorism and the rise of the Islamic State.

Yet there’s still room to manoeuvre in the arms trade deal, Huebert said. He pointed to the 1997 convention to ban anti-personnel land mines, which was signed in Ottawa and which Canada played a central role in negotiating, as an example.

“There are instances where the moral imperatives are so extreme you have seen countries, including Canada, that have said no,” he said.