CDA Institute Advisory Council member Richard Cohen explores some of the issues surrounding Canada’s decision to sell military equipment to Saudi Arabia. 

Governing can be hard work. Especially when the policies you were elected to make may be challenged by university professors and overturned by the courts. And it’s particularly embarrassing when those challenges are the very same charges you made to Government when you were in Opposition!

The $15 billion arms deal between Canada and Saudi Arabia has certainly become a political hot potato for the new Liberal government. General Dynamics Land Systems (GDLS), based in London, Ontario, a long-time producer of Light Armoured Vehicles (LAVs) for the Canadian, US and other armies, are manufacturing 1000 or more vehicles for the Saudi National Guard. The deal has created and will sustain some 3,000 highly skilled jobs in London and elsewhere in Canada for the next 15 years, undoubtedly a welcome bright spot at a time of tight employment and a lagging economy.

The dilemma for the new government, and for Foreign Minister Dion in particular, is that these advanced GDLS LAV IIIs are equipped with modern, highly lethal weapons that are destined not for the Army but for the Saudi National Guard, an organisation charged with protecting the ruling royal family and, if necessary, violently suppressing internal dissent.

It’s no secret that the Saudi record on human rights is not a good one. In addition, for years, the Saudis have been funding radical Wahhabi mosques around the world that have become centres for radicalisation and sometimes terrorism. And recently the Saudis have killed large numbers of civilians, as ‘collateral damage,’ during their air campaign in Yemen as part of a proxy war with Iran.

However, despite our dim view of many Saudi policies, the country is a long-time Western ally, one of the few Arab states that has remained ‘loyal’ to the West since the end of World War II. The Saudis, as the owners of one of the largest oil reserves on earth, a major export market, and an important source of investment in Western countries, have been a stabilising factor in a very unstable part of the world.

Even in an era when oil is in oversupply and the US has become largely energy independent, Saudi Arabia remains an important ally, moderating the behaviour of the more radical members of OPEC and rallying its neighbours against the even more extreme Islamic State. It remains a rock of stability in a chaotic region.

But the rock has shown dangerous signs of cracking under growing internal and external pressures. An increasingly restive Shia minority, a newly empowered and hostile Iran and, most recently, the rise of even more extreme forces in the neighbourhood along with the dramatic return of Russia to the chaotic Middle East, have put a tremendous strain on Saudi stability. The survival of the regime and of the kingdom as a pro-Western ally is no longer assured.

The Middle East is a highly fractured and violent part of the world. Human rights are not priorities for any government or anti-government faction in the region. History has shown that very often the alternative to a dictatorship you know is considerably worse than the new regime you don’t. Iran, Libya, and Muslim Brotherhood Egypt are recent examples. And Syria, post-Assad, could easily go the same way.

Canada joins a long list of allies who have eagerly sold military and internal security equipment to the Saudis. Arms sales to the kingdom and its smaller Gulf neighbours have helped preserve the defence industrial base of many of these countries, especially in times of lean home defence procurement. The sale of the LAVs is no different.

It’s clearly in Canada’s national interest to preserve the political order in Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States, not because we approve of the Saudis’ misogynistic society, their export of militant Wahabi Islam, and their sometimes brutal treatment of their own citizens, but because the alternatives are almost certainly much worse.

As well, cancelling the LAV III contract with the Saudis would have a very negative effect on our political and trade relations not only with Saudi Arabia itself but more widely in the Middle East and especially the other Gulf States where there are significant Canadian economic and investment interests.

This does not help us escape the moral dilemma of supplying arms to a regime that could use them for political repression. However, our own Canadian national interests, economic and strategic, dictate that maintaining profitable political and trade relations with ‘friendly’ countries like Saudi Arabia, including arms sales, is the most rational option in a world of unpleasant choices.

Richard Cohen is president of RSC Strategic Connections, sits on the Advisory Council of the CDA Institute, and served in the Canadian and British Armies. He was Professor of European Security Studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies. (Image courtesy of AP.)