By Paul Brian
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A Shia Muslim who lives in Greece takes part in a rally outside Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Athens on Wednesday. She was protesting the execution of cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in Saudi Arabia on Saturday. (THANASSIS STAVRAKIS/AP)
The enemy of your enemy is not necessarily your friend.
It’s a lesson the West has been reluctant or indifferent to learn, particularly in Middle East policy.
Saudi Arabia’s execution of dissident Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr on Jan. 2 is setting off a firestorm of tensions in the region. While it’s likely the Saudis want this drama to distract from their own falling oil prices, the losing war in Yemen, and a resurgent Iran, it’s a situation that could spiral further out of control any day.
Canada should be helping to douse the flames, not fanning them by honouring a $14.8-billion contract to sell armoured vehicles to the Saudi military.
Canada underestimated from the start what the scope of the reaction to al-Nimr’s death sentence would be if it was carried out, and now there’s concern the Saudi-Iranian feud could also jeopardize UN-sponsored peace talks on Syria set to resume Jan. 15 in Geneva.
Canada must focus on what it can do to help.
When former Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird closed the Canadian embassy in Tehran and expelled all Iranian diplomats from Ottawa in 2012, he denounced the Ayatollah Khamenei’s Islamic Republic as a sponsor of terrorism and a leading abuser of human rights.
True. Also true of Saudi Arabia.
Our previous government signed off on this country’s biggest-ever arms deal to supply the Saudis with the weapon-outfitted military vehicles through London, Ont.-based General Dynamics Canada only months before the al-Nimr case was decided in the fall of 2014. Incidentally, Baird left a meeting the day after al-Nimr’s sentencing praising the “positive direction” Saudi Arabia was taking with human rights. An effete statement if there ever was one for a country where being gay carries a death sentence and adulterers are killed with rocks.
Recently, current Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion said he’d like to re-establish diplomatic relations with Tehran, a country with similar legal punishments as the Saudis. But the General Dynamics deal won’t be reconsidered, Dion insisted.
The thing is, Canada shouldn’t be selling military equipment to any government of theocratic thugs, whether that be in Riyadh or Tehran. Would Canada sell military equipment to Pyongyang?
Most recently, Saudi Arabia has committed numerous war crimes in the now largely-overlooked-by-Western-media war in Yemen. The Saudis have also imposed a blockade that’s led to borderline-famine conditions for millions of Yemenis. A recent Saudi airstrike in Yemen hit an institution for the blind in the capital, Sanaa. The list goes on.
Iran, the place where Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi was imprisoned and died under suspicious
circumstances for taking photographs in 2003, is no better. It executed almost three times as many people as Saudi Arabia in 2014 according to Amnesty International. In 2015, they are believed to have executed almost 700 between January and July alone. Iran’s close ally, Bashar al-Assad of Syria, is a tyrant who has committed deplorable atrocities against his people.
The debate here should not be cast as the necessity of picking a side or an ally of necessity.
If a side is picked, it should be to stand up for the millions of innocent civilians displaced by the destruction in Syria and the fighting from all sides as the increasingly complex conflict compounds human suffering.
Supplying Iran’s foe with high-tech military hardware similar to that Saudi Arabia used to put down Shiite protests in neighbouring Bahrain in 2011 is not the way to remain neutral or broker peace. If anything, selling or supplying weapons to nations such as Iran, Syria or Saudi Arabia is a way to help turn proxy wars into all-out wars.
There’s a likelihood Saudi Arabia wants to scapegoat Shiites through the al-Nimr execution to shore up support at home and distract from the economic downturn and uncomfortable realities on the ground. At this point, Iran has basically turned parts of Iraq into a vassal state and its semi-thaw in relations with the United States is a thorn in the Saudis’ side. However, the fact Saudi Arabia is desperate enough to provoke this reaction at this time is not a good sign for the future prospects of the region.
Though Saudi Arabia’s centrality may diminish somewhat for the United States as it increases its natural gas exploration, the desert kingdom remains key to the world economy. Despite the Saudi funding for jihadist ideology, many Western countries remain cosy with its rulers. Saudi Arabia is also Canada’s second-largest export market in the region. Could that promising economic relationship with the House of Saud be further amplifying Canada’s reluctance to rethink the arms deal?
We need jobs, but business isn’t worth blood.
When it comes to the increasingly dire situation in the Middle East, Canada’s role should be to act as a facilitator of any small steps towards finding common ground, not to act as an arms dealer.
Paul Brian is a freelance journalist who lives on Vancouver Island. He is a former intern at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. and has reported overseas from the Republic of Georgia and Hungary. His website is www.paulrbrian.com