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Picture of Canada and Saudi Foreign Affair Twitter Accounts

The ongoing dispute between the governments of Saudi Arabia and Canada continues to escalate. In the latest development, Saudi state television channel Al Arabiya aired a segment criticizing Canada’s human rights record, making a number of false claims—such as that Jordan Peterson had been arrested for his political views—while also pointing to real issues such as Canada’s abysmal treatment of Indigenous people. Though Saudi Arabia itself is one of the most repressive and reactionary regimes in the world, its televised broadside against Canada underscores the severity of the recent quarrel between the two countries. What is the meaning of this unprecedented breakdown in relations?

The beginning of the spat followed a tweet on Aug. 2 by Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland expressing “alarm” that Samar Badawi, the sister of imprisoned Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, had herself been imprisoned, and calling for the release of both. Raif Badawi’s wife Ensaf Haidar and their three children are Canadian citizens. The next day, Freeland’s department issued another tweet, reiterating that the Canadian government was “gravely concerned about additional arrests of civil society and women’s rights activists” in Saudi Arabia including Samar Badawi, and calling for their immediate release.

The response from the Saudi government was immediate and explosive. Riyadh expelled the Canadian ambassador, suspended Saudi state airline flights to and from Toronto, and announced plans to pull thousands of Saudi students on scholarships from Canadian schools, and to transfer Saudi patients in Canadian hospitals out of the country. It called for the suspension of all trade and business between Saudi Arabia and Canada, with the Saudi Grains Organization pledging that it would no longer buy Canadian wheat and barley. Meanwhile, the Saudi central bank and state pension funds ordered overseas asset managers to sell off all of their Canadian assets, “no matter the cost.” Taking to its own Twitter account, the Saudi foreign ministry called Canada’s criticism “an overt and blatant interference” in the kingdom’s internal affairs.

There was one conspicuous exception to the bilateral suspension of trade relations: In the week after Freeland’s initial tweet and the Saudi retaliatory measures, Saudi Arabia’s Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih assured nervous investors that the diplomatic crisis would have no impact on Saudi oil supplies to Canada.

As Financial Post contributor Geoffrey Morgan explained, there is a strong economic incentive for Canada to continue buying Saudi oil. Every day, Canada imports 100,000 barrels of oil from Saudi Arabia, the majority of which go to refineries in Quebec and Atlantic Canada. The Irving Oil Refinery in New Brunswick is the single largest processor of Saudi oil in Canada. As the world’s largest oil producer, Saudi Arabia is able to produce oil more cheaply than many of its competitors. For Eastern Canada to replace Saudi Arabia with another source of crude oil would be difficult and expensive. Transporting oil to the east coast from Western Canada, for example, would require either moving the crude oil through the United States and then putting it on a container ship back to Canada, or shipping it to the east via railcar—a method fraught with safety concerns in the wake of the Lac-Mégantic disaster that claimed at least 42 lives.

Trudeau’s Liberals miscalculate

What prompted the Government of Canada to issue its initial critique of Saudi Arabia? In all likelihood, the best explanation for Freeland’s tweets is that they were the result of a simple miscalculation. The Liberal government led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau believed, wrongly, that it could publicly issue a mild call for the release of political prisoners in Saudi Arabia and face no serious repercussions. The Liberal government has made similar generic statements in the past, none of which elicited the same harsh response.

Despite his “progressive”, “feminist” image, Trudeau, as the Prime Minister of Canada and leader of the Liberal Party, is ultimately a representative of big business and the interests of the Canadian capitalist class. As such, his policies inevitably reflect the interests of that class—a truth that no amount of photo ops or carefully worded public statements can conceal forever. As Trudeau faces increasing criticism for policies such as spending billions in public funds on an expensive bailout of Kinder Morgan to construct the Trans Mountain pipeline, he has leaned ever more heavily on women’s rights and his own brand as a “feminist” to maintain that carefully constructed progressive veneer.

Selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, however, threatened to damage Trudeau’s image as a supposed feminist. Despite laughably trumpeting itself as a state in the process of reform due to symbolic gestures such as allowing women to drive, Saudi Arabia remains one of the most backward societies in the world in its treatment of women. Women in Saudi Arabia still require male permission for major activities such as travel, marriage and divorce, or filling a police report. They must abide by an official dress code and are prohibited from mixing in public with men. Public spaces such as beaches and stadiums remain strictly segregated by gender.

For Canada’s “feminist” Prime Minister to give his blessing to a $15-billion arms contract, including a number of heavy assault armored vehicles, to such a country would not be a good look and might perhaps raise some uncomfortable questions. As a result, the government likely saw Freeland’s tweets as a harmless symbolic gesture that would benefit Trudeau and the Liberals politically by enabling them to posture on the world stage as champions of women and human rights.

Weakness of the Saudi regime

Unfortunately for the Liberals, their criticism came at an inopportune time for the Saudi regime, which is increasingly a regime in crisis. Though global oil prices have been volatile in recent years, peaking in 2014 and seeing periodic rises and falls, the long-term drop in prices is a potential source of instability for a government that relies so heavily on this one commodity as the source of its wealth and power. Despite Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (MBS) trumpeting his “Vision 2030” as an effort to transition the country’s economy away from reliance on oil, “black gold” is still the foundation of the Saudi economy and the exorbitant wealth of its royal family. In the second quarter of 2018, oil accounted for 70 per cent of the state’s total revenue.

Meanwhile, the Saudi regime remains mired in a series of expensive wars and foreign entanglements. Having witnessed the failure of its efforts at regime change in Syria after funneling money and weapons to foreign jihadis embroiled in that country’s civil war, MBS is now facing defeat in his own country’s war in Yemen. That war—which has killed tens of thousands of people, destroyed the bulk of Yemen’s infrastructure, and left millions on the brink of starvation—began in part as an effort by MBS to combat the growing influence of Iran and to appease the Wahhabi clerics that oppose the royal family. Yet all the regime’s efforts to bring the war to an end through brute force—resulting in atrocities such as its recent bombing of a school bus killing 44 children—have been unable to help it achieve victory. Commentators have described the war in Yemen as “Saudi Arabia’s Vietnam”. The experience of defeat in a foreign war, combined with unpopular austerity measures at home, is a recipe for class struggle.

In an effort to shore up support, the Saudi government has adopted the policy of both the “carrot” and the “stick”. While it has introduced some symbolic reforms, such as permitting more freedoms for women, it has also intensified its repression and ruthlessly cracked down on all possible dissent. The intense inequality in Saudi Arabian society—epitomized by its parasitical royal family that lives in obscene luxury, while the majority of the population struggles with rising living costs and a vast immigrant workforce endures brutal exploitation—can only resist a social explosion through ubiquitous and barbaric state violence. Repression by the Saudi regime is most visibly expressed in its medieval forms of execution such as beheadings and crucifixions.

No support from allies as Canadian bourgeoisie struggles to respond

In this context, Canadian criticism of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is seen by the regime as both ignoring recent reforms and potentially giving fuel to more domestic dissent such as that of the Badawi siblings. Desperate to maintain the position of the royal family, the Saudi government has sought to make an example of Canada.

In choosing this particular target, the Saudis have been emboldened by the presidency of Donald Trump, who made his first foreign trip to Riyadh, shares with the Saudi government an antipathy for Iran, openly expresses admiration for the authoritarian methods of foreign autocrats such as the Saudis—and has also singled out Canada and Justin Trudeau for criticism, starting a trade war by imposing tariffs on Canadian imports and calling Trudeau “dishonest and weak” after the latest G7 meeting in Quebec. Trump’s response to the Saudi-Canada dispute has been muted, referring to both countries as allies and declining to support the Canadian position. The prospect of losing out on lucrative trade with Saudi Arabia has led to other Canadian allies such as the United Kingdom and European Union likewise adopting a neutral stance.

At home, divisions have appeared in the Canadian ruling class as it attempts to figure out how to move forward. Maclean’s magazine was unequivocal in its assessment of the dispute as it currently stands: “The Saudis are winning.” Writer Terry Glavin noted that Canada will continue to buy Saudi oil and move forward with its arms sale to Riyadh. Bilateral trade between the two countries is $4 billion, a drop in the bucket for the overall Saudi economy. The Liberal government has attempted a delicate balancing act in its response. It has tried to save face by claiming it will continue to “speak out” on human rights—a view of Canada’s role in the world which is highly dubious—even as Trudeau backtracks by declaring that Saudi Arabia is “making progress when it comes to human rights”. While Ottawa works behind the scenes in an effort to gain more “clarity” about the retaliatory measures, the Saudi government has in effect demanded total capitulation from Canada.

As Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer maintains a conspicuous silence figuring out how to respond to the dispute, former Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has emerged as a vocal critic of the Canadian government’s actions. In an interview with Al Arabiya, Baird demonstrated the servile relationship of a segment of the Canadian bourgeoisie towards Saudi Arabia by chastising his own government’s response and demanding that Trudeau fly to Riyadh to apologize in person to the Saudi royal family. Critics quickly noted that Baird is listed as an “international advisor” for Barrick Gold, a Canadian multinational with significant mining interests in Saudi Arabia.

The feud between Saudi Arabia and Canada is further evidence of the fracturing of the international order that prevailed for decades after the end of the Second World War. In the aftermath of the 2008 recession, governments around the world imposing austerity have faced an increasing crisis of legitimacy, resulting in a political polarization to the right and left and increasing divisions among the ruling class. Parallel to this on a global scale, we see an increased antagonism between nations.

In the face of a stagnating world economy and the looming threat of crisis, each country’s ruling class has sought to gain advantage at the expense of its rivals and to redirect popular anger against foreign governments. However the dispute between the Saudi and Canadian governments resolves itself, so long as capitalism remains, with its contradiction between a global economy and nation-states representing the interests of their respective ruling classes, we can expect more discord of this type in the future.

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