National Column: The stakes are low in squabble between Ottawa and Riyadh

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by Thomas Walkom

Canada’s squabble with Saudi Arabia is convenient for both. The stakes are low and each government can gain political points by hanging tough.

Appropriately enough, the contretemps began with that most ephemeral of actions, the tweet. Last Thursday, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland tweeted that she was “very alarmed” to learn that Saudi women’s rights activist Samar Badawi had been arrested.

Samar Badawi is the sister of imprisoned blogger Raif Badawi, who in 2014 was sentenced to 10 years in jail and a flogging of 1,000 lashes – 50 of which have been delivered. He, in turn, is married to a Canadian citizen. So itís not surprising that Ottawa is continuing to call for the release of both.

That first tweet was followed by a second from Freeland’s department saying that Canada was “gravely concerned” by the arrests of those seeking civil and women’s rights. It urged the Saudi government to “immediately release them and all other peaceful human rights activists.”

As these things go, the Canadian twitter fusillade was tame stuff. But the Saudis decided that retaliation was in order. The government in Riyadh recalled thousands of Saudi students studying in Canada, including about 1,000 medical residents and fellows.

It ordered Saudi patients who had paid handsomely to be treated in Canadian hospitals to go elsewhere.

It also froze new Saudi trade and investment in Canada, ordered the Saudi central bank to sell Canadian assets, cancelled air service to Toronto and announced it would no longer buy Canadian wheat and barley.

It all sounded very dramatic. But as is so often the case, there was less to the Saudi actions then met the eye.

For the truth is that Saudi Arabia isnít very important to Canada. And vice versa. Figures compiled by the Library of Parliament show that Saudi Arabia was Canadaís 25th largest trading partner in 2015.

Canadian exports to Saudi Arabia (mainly military vehicles and parts) comprised only 0.2 per cent of this countryís exports overall. Similarly, Canadian imports from Saudi Arabia (mainly oil) comprised only 0.4 per cent of imports overall.

The Saudis have quietly announced that the dispute won’t affect that country’s sale of oil to Canada. Nor is there any indication that it will affect Canada’s lucrative sales of military equipment to Saudi Arabia – including a controversial $15 billion deal to build light armoured vehicles for the desert kingdom.

The wheat and barley boycott might matter if we sold a lot of those grains to Saudi Arabia. But we don’t. Only 7 per cent of Canadian barley exports are destined for Saudi Arabia. The figure for wheat exports is a staggeringly low 0.4 per cent.

As for Saudi financial penalties, the Globe and Mail reports that the country’s central bank holds less than one per cent of Canadian securities domiciled abroad.

The kingdom’s decision to pull Saudi students, medical residents and patients from Canadian health care and educational institutions will have a short-term effect.

But it also sheds light on the dubious strategy employed by these institutions to get around government funding cutbacks.

Universities welcome foreign students because they can charge them more than Canadians.
Overcrowded hospitals welcome foreign patients – sometime called medical tourists – for the same reason.

While hospitals have plenty of space for Saudi medical residents bankrolled by Riyadh, thanks to provincial government parsimony, they don’t have enough for those who have graduated from Canadian medical schools.

Beyond this is the question of whether it makes sense for Canada to sell military equipment to a country that has chosen to intervene in neighbouring Yemen’s brutal civil war.

In a rational discussion of Canada-Saudi relations, all of this might feature. In this dispute, it has not.

Instead, we have this largely phoney war. The Saudi autocracy is using Canada to show the kingdom’s internal critics that it has no patience for Western meddlers.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is using the Saudis to show his critics than he canít be pushed around.

In a strange way, they are perfect adversaries. Canada is led by a self-styled feminist. Saudi Arabia still uses crucifixion as punishment. Each represents for the other an archetypical villain.

Thomas Walkom is a Toronto-based columnist covering politics.
Follow him on Twitter: @tomwalkom
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services

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