My Saudi problem

One of my interlocutors asked me: “What’s your problem with the Saudis?

I have two, actually:

  • 0a9ac6bf77ec52f732e7659a1cfd2f36First, way back in the early years of the 20th century Abdulaziz ibn Abdul Rahman ibn Faisal ibn Turki ibn Abdullah ibn Muhammad Al Saud, known to the Arabs as Abdulaziz and to Westerners as ibn Saud established the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and he aligned it closely with the the fundamentalist Wahhabi religious sect which, in its turn, used the House of Saud’s money and influence to spread its medieval doctrines around the world. The Wahhabis (is Wahhabite the more correct term?) are the teachers of what became the Taliban (Talib means student and the Taliban was created and nurtured in Saudi funded madrassas (religious schools) in Afghanistan and Pakistan), and, further, the people who perpetrated 9/11 were Wahhabi adherents, mostly from Saudi Arabia ; and
  • Second, for the past couple of years Saudi Arabia has been waging an aggressive war in the Middle East. Aggressive war is, the world decided in the 1950s, now a crime against humanity under the customary international law. Back in 1950 the Nuremberg Tribunal wrote that ““War is essentially an evil thing. Its consequences are not confined to the belligerent states alone, but affect the whole world. To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”” We have been discussing the notion of a “just war” (jus ad bellum) for more than two thousand years, so the idea is not new, and many attempts have been made to codify it … but the Saudis have decided that the rules of civilized society don’t apply to their plans to control the Arabian Peninsula and, perhaps to dominate the whole of the Middle East. I believe they are morally and ethically wrong and that they have put themselves beyond the political-diplomatic pale.

I need to tell you that I have been to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on a handful of occasions and each time I was treated with the utmost courtesy; and I have worked, collegially, with Saudi officers and officials in international fora, again in harmony. I like the Saudi people I have met and with whom I have worked … it is their government and its policies that I find unacceptable.

I am less bothered by the first issue than by the second. While I believe that the House of Saud has unleashed a virulent and sometimes violent theology on the world, an ideology that is antithetical to Canada’s and the West’s interests and values, it is still within the bounds of international conduct. It is not too far, in either for substance, from what Christian missionaries did in much of the world for hundreds of years … what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, and all that, I suppose. I don’t think it is especially helpful that the Wahhabi teaching encouraged Afghan men to force Afghan women, for example, to adopt medieval socio-cultural standards, often at pain of corporal punishment …Screen Shot 2018-12-22 at 06.40.00

… but it’s not something over which we should go to war or break diplomatic relations, and, to be fair, those young women on the left were (in 1972) part if a very small, very privileged minority in Kabul. But, and this is a big problem for me, over the past two years or so, especially since the summer of 2017, I think that Saudi policy has taken an unacceptable turn. I think I understand that the Saudis, along with the Egyptians, Iranians and Turks, are contesting for the leading role at least the Middle East and, perhaps, in the broader Muslim world but they have changed their main tactic from influence and supporting clients to what I believe is aggressive war.

As I write this the media is reporting that King Salman has made some major changes in Screen Shot 2018-12-28 at 09.54.02his cabinet. The Financial Times says that “Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman retains his wide-ranging powers. But the reshuffle is likely to be viewed as the king attempting to “clean house” and send a signal to the international community that it has responded to the crisis that followed the journalist’s death in October, experts say.” I think that’s just window dressing: the war against Yemen and the attacks on Qatar are still clear signals that Saudi Arabia is on the wrong ethical and moral side of the fence.

When Canada signed a contract to supply the Saudis with armoured vehicles I took the view that those who make weapons of war should nor be surprised when the people who buy them use them for their intended purposes. I also took the view that if Canada didn’t sell the vehicles to Saudi Arabia then Sweden or Switzerland would … but then, in 2017, the situation changed and now, because Saudi Arabia’s conduct has changed, the Swedes and Swiss will not supply the Saudis with weapons, because, as I said, Saudi Arabia has crossed an important moral line; Canada should not either.

I guess that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman believes that he and his country have no choice; they must either wage aggressive war or risk having the prize of leading the Middle East snatched from them by Egypt, Iran or Turkey. That’s not Canada’s problem; doing the right thing should be.

I think there is some room for ethics in politics and trade and I believe that the Saudis have crossed a line and that Canada should, as Canada, under John Diefenbaker, did with South Africa, take a moral stand, even if it costs us something.


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