Critics of the $15 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia have taken the federal government to task for failing to fully disclose the information it relies on to evaluate country risk. It’s part of the due diligence framework government officers must undergo when conducting arms sales to countries with dubious human rights records, ones that may be aid recipients, that may be at war or that may have governments that are in violation of international law.
The proposed sale came under scrutiny because of Saudi Arabia’s record of human rights violations, which we have documented on behalf of and in partnership with the Government of Canada in our evidence-based research on failed and fragile states.
So despite having been forewarned that trouble was looming on the Saudi file, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has decided for now to push ahead with the deal. “Almost all our allies are selling weapons to Saudi Arabia,” said Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion. “It’s part of the world in which we are living.”
Judging from Mr. Dion’s comments, one might conclude the Liberal government has crunched the numbers and is satisfied with them and its predecessors’ decision to proceed with the deal. But there’s more to it than that. A leaked memo from Foreign Affairs (now Global Affairs Canada) in 2012 made it quite clear that Canada would have to establish trade relations with countries which do not share our values — suggesting that the Harper government was willing to overlook human rights abuses abroad in the interest of economic gains at home.
Consider that a similar situation unfolded when then-Defence Minister Jason Kenney told Canadians he was interested in shipping lethal weapons to the government of Ukraine. Since Ukraine is a country of focus for our international development assistance, Canada was — by law — bound to uphold its own Official Development Assistance Accountability Act, which the Harper government introduced in 2008. Poverty reduction and human rights are front and centre in that law, as are aid effectiveness and anti-corruption measures.
In essence, selling arms to Ukraine would have been a violation of the Act. In instances where countries are at war and are receiving aid, any decisions regarding lethal aid must be approved by Parliament. Before a government can contravene the Aid Accountability Act, it has to make the case to Parliament that a country should be exempt for reasons related to a declared emergency.
Apparently, no such accountability is required in the Saudi trade deal — even though its leaders are committing forces to fight Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria. Obviously, Saudi Arabia is not an aid recipient, but the principle remains the same. In launching its revamped mission against ISIS, the Liberal government committed over $1.6 billion to providing support for good governance and overhauling the public sector in some of the countries hardest hit by the crisis (Lebanon and Jordan), along with specific humanitarian aid to handle the refugee situation in the region.
While Saudi Arabia’s legitimacy rankings may have improved slightly over time, it’s an open question whether even a reform-oriented regime could withstand the same pressures that brought on the collapse of Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen.
But the Liberal government’s position on Saudi Arabia is different — even though a far stronger argument could be made for reforming that country’s political system over those of Lebanon and Jordan. Since it is not part of the anti-ISIS aid and reform package, Saudi Arabia should be, by Liberal government standards, exempt from any formal human rights review.
But that argument doesn’t hold much water now that Saudi Arabia is an explicit part of the coalition’s war against ISIS. For example, should Saudi Arabia for any reason introduce martial law or impose severe restrictions on civil and political liberties, or should those within its government be accused of human rights abuses, corruption or unsavory acts towards minorities, then obviously the arms deal would have to be called into question.
Indeed, one could make a strong case that Saudi Arabia already is in a precarious human rights position considering that its forces have been engaged in a year-long campaign against Yemen using banned cluster munitions — one that has caused a very high civilian death toll and the displacement of more than 2.5 million people.
In fact, the research we have done for the Government of Canada over the last 10 years documenting the trajectories of failed and fragile states shows that Saudi Arabia has not fared well on a basket of key indicators measuring a country’s legitimacy. This basket of indicators includes civil liberties and political rights, gender inequality and press freedom.
In the years that preceded the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia, like many other countries in the Middle East and North Africa region, was among the worst-performing countries when it came to legitimacy. In 2006 and 2007 Saudi Arabia ranked as the third least legitimate country in the world. In 2009 it ranked second; in 2008, eighth; in 2010, seventh. Then, starting in 2011, its legitimacy scores improved slightly relative to other countries whose performance had actually worsened in the region; it ranked eleventh.
By 2013 Saudi Arabia ranked in the low 30s largely because of a key policy change associated with the gender-related legitimacy indicators we use. One indicator is the percentage of female parliamentarians. Saudi Arabia used to rank the absolute worst for this one, since no women were allowed to sit in its parliament. This changed due to a quota imposed by the King, which partly explains the rapid and significant change. A second indicator is the gender inequality index. Between 2012 and 2013, Saudi Arabia went from #4 to #96, again because of female representation in parliament. Despite these improvements, women are still forbidden from obtaining a passport, marrying, travelling or accessing higher education without the approval of a male guardian, usually a husband, father, brother or son. On human rights and press freedoms, Saudi Arabia continues to perform poorly. It ranks among the worst 15 in terms of press freedom and is among the very worst in terms of political rights and civil liberties.
Lack of legitimacy in the Middle East and North Africa region is an issue that we have highlighted in previous publications for the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and in our published research on the subject. In fact, by the time the Arab Spring had become an arena for uncontrolled violence in 2013, legitimacy was where many of the region’s countries tended to underperform compared to the global average. Today, Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Libya are among the most fragile countries in the world, and despite recent improvements, most of the region’s countries still facesevere gaps in legitimacy.
Apart from the fact that the Harper government — and now Trudeau’s — disregarded evidence that contradicts their desire for an arms deal with Saudi Arabia, there is another important conclusion to take away from these findings. Like the other countries that succumbed to violence during the Arab Spring, Saudi Arabia is a hydrocarbon-based economy run by autocrats. While its legitimacy rankings may have improved slightly over time, it’s an open question whether even a reform-oriented regime could withstand the same pressures that brought on the collapse of Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen.
Our evidence suggests that there is considerable cause for concern when it comes to measures of legitimacy in Saudi Arabia — which is why the Government of Canada would be best advised to rethink this deal.
David Carment is the editor of the Canadian Foreign Policy Journal and a Fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. Teddy Samy is a professor of International Affairs at Carleton University and associate director of the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs.