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Saudi Arabia: friend or foe? Answer: both


An American media spotlight on Saudi Arabia re-appeared with the 15th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Did the kingdom play a nefarious role in that terrible day? If so, should 9/11 victims be able to sue the Saudis in American courts, as proposed in the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act? While President Barack Obama wrestles with Congress over this bill, it’s worth considering what Canada’s own foreign policy on Saudi Arabia should look like.

Canada and Saudi Arabia are vastly different in their values and long-term goals. The former represents an open, free, liberal democracy. The latter is a leading exporter of Islamist extremism and one of the world’s most egregious violators of human rights. Yet the oil-rich monarchy is usually regarded as a western ally with whom certain interests are shared, including combating ISIS and strengthening economic ties.

Put simply, Saudi Arabia is both an ally and a foe, and Canadian policy vis-à-vis the Gulf state should reflect that complexity.

In the spring, I testified before a Senate committee studying the economic levers that exist in Canadian law to enhance foreign states’ respect for human rights. One of the motivations behind the committee’s inquiry was the $15-billion deal that Ottawa had signed to sell light-armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia. I joined many Canadians in feeling a distinct discomfort in exporting military assets to this regime. I nonetheless felt compelled in my testimony to highlight the grey and ugly realities of international politics.

Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations are abhorrent, but we cannot ignore that the kingdom acts as a regional counterweight to the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Tehran’s belligerence toward the West – Canada included – has only accelerated despite warm outreach to this odious regime, which arbitrarily imprisons Canadians and other westerners, sponsors terrorism, illegally tests ballistic missiles, threatens to annihilate Israel, and brutally abuses the rights of various minorities.  Given the Iranian threat to global security interests, Saudi Arabia cannot be disabled while Iran grows stronger due to nuclear sanctions relief from the West.

Thus, when it comes to power dynamics in the Gulf, and the Middle East more broadly, Canada should contribute to maintaining the Saudis’ muscle in order to counterbalance Iran’s ambitions.

On the other hand, Ottawa must not tolerate Saudi interference in Canada. A centerpiece of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy is the export of a fundamentalist strain of Islam known as Wahhabism, which has fuelled global extremism, radicalization, and ultimately terrorism, from which Canadians are not immune.

The country’s religious makeup originates from an alliance between the powerful Saud family and the descendants of Sheikh Mohammed Ibn Abdul Wahab, a cleric who followed the most illiberal and intolerant school of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence. This is the brand of Islam that denigrates and dehumanizes Christians and Jews. It is the brand of Islam that compels Saudi authorities to ban public worship by non-Muslims; to discriminate against Muslim religious minorities; and to forbid women from obtaining a passport, marrying or travelling without the approval of a male guardian. It is also the brand of Islam taught in Saudi-funded religious schools and mosques throughout the world.

“There’s only so much dehumanizing of the other that you can be exposed to – and exposed to as the word of God – without becoming susceptible to recruitment,” says David Andrew Weinberg, an expert on Saudi Arabia and my colleague at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

The Trudeau government has committed to boosting Canadian counter-radicalization capacity. To start, Ottawa should prohibit Canadian educational, religious and cultural institutions from accepting funds from Saudi Arabia and any other foreign entities that embrace and promote the extremist ideologies posing a threat to the fabric of Canada’s multicultural society and its democratic system of governance. As long as the patrons of extremist ideologies have an unfettered ability to invest billions of dollars in institutions in the West, the threat of radicalization will only grow.

Sheryl Saperia is director of policy for Canada at the Foundation for Defense
of Democracies.

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