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Harper sees Saudi Arabia as a priority market despite human rights record

Prince Turki al-Faisal, a high-ranking member of the Saudi Royal Family, will be visiting Ottawa on February 17. His visit comes at the intersection of three pivotal issues: the Saudi policy to keep world oil prices low to deny market share to the bitumen extracted in northern Alberta, a $15-billion sale of light armoured military vehicles to Saudi Arabia promoted by the Harper government, and increased scrutiny on the human rights record in Saudi Arabia in light of the flogging of Raif Badawi.

Oil prices

The Globe and Mail’s European Bureau Chief Eric Reguly has written, “The Saudis are obsessed with market share, especially in the United States… The problem for the Saudis is that American oil imports are plunging. That’s because shale oil production is surging and a gusher of imports from Canada is filling U.S. pipelines. …Based a four-week average, U.S. oil imports from Saudi Arabia were recently down some 700,000 barrels a day over a year ago, according to the U.S. Department of Energy… The big winner was Canada: U.S. imports of Canadian crude were up about 300,000 barrels a days. …If the Saudis truly want to punish Alberta for having audacity to grab so much market share in the United States at the Saudis’ expense, they will have to keep the oil price down for years.”

Military sales

Alex Neve, the secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada, says, “[The Saudis] are known to use armoured vehicles and other weapons in dispersing peaceful protest, such as the role that Saudi security forces played in helping crush popular protests in Bahrain during the Arab Spring. The government should release the details of the assessment it made in support of the decision to authorize this sale and explain why they are confident these armoured vehicles will not be used to violate human rights.”

Human rights

Last week, Neve, along with the executive directors of Project Ploughshares and PEN Canada, wrote, “The injustice facing one man [Raif Badawi] in Saudi Arabia has brought into focus the harrowing human-rights reality that Canada routinely overlooks in its relationship with the kingdom. …Mr. Badawi has already received the first 50 lashes. Last week’s second batch was postponed – but only because he had not yet sufficiently healed from the first round to endure a second flogging. His crime? Believing in freedom of expression, women’s equality and the right to differ and disagree publicly. He was charged with insulting Islam because he criticized religious leaders for disregarding human rights.”

The Harper government has designated Saudi Arabia a priority market. Some of the background for this dates back to November 2012. At that time, CBC reported on a confidential government document that prioritizes forging new trade deals and business opportunities even where there are human rights abuses. The government document says, “To succeed we will need to pursue political relationships in tandem with economic interests even where political interests or values may not align.” 

The Council of Canadians calls on the Harper government to respect basic human rights here at home and abroad. For commentary by Council of Canadians chairperson Maude Barlow on how human rights policies have eroded under the Harper government, please click here.