Canada builds weapons used to squelch the Arab Spring protests
The current struggle for self-expression in Bahrain suffers from the pitfalls of geography. Enwrapped by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, occupied by the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, and politically dominated by a dynastic family, Bahrain does not appear a favorable place for a group that wants self-determination. But democratic activists in Bahrain have remained resolute and principled. Protests continue despite the Saudi occupation that commenced on March 14, 2011. For this reason, Amnesty International named its concise summary of the protests, “Bloodied but Unbowed.” The unsurprising appearance of 1000 Saudi Arabian troops, 500 soldiers from the United Arab Emirates, and hundreds of armored vehicles and tanks should trouble any Canadian, since Saudi Arabia is one of our most loyal clients in the weapons business. The trade agreements and mutual investments across these two countries loop and link with petroleum exports and military hardware. Canada and Bahrain have a Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (FIPA) that was signed in January 2010.
Bahraini foreign policy is influenced by Saudi Arabia, and Canadian bilateral ties—our ambassador to Saudi Arabia is also accredited to Bahrain—put our government and industries against the grassroots opposition movements in the smaller country.
The brave struggles for democracy in the Middle East have been termed the “Arab Spring.” While there is something inherently optimistic about this shorthand title, the unscrupulousness with which Western states, and notably Canada, sell military hardware to the autocrats negates any sentiment of promise and hope. The conscienceless and uncontrollably rich ruling classes that are the target of the Arab Spring are represented in the Rolodexes of Canadian weapons manufacturers. This is especially true of Saudi Arabia.
The Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade (COAT), a research group organized by Richard Sanders of Ottawa, has recently released a trove of official figures on how much Canadian firms contribute to the upper crust of this region. Since 1992, Canada has sold $1.89 billion in armored fighting vehicles to the region with $1.85B of that going directly to Saudi Arabia. Various other military exports totaled $1.99B with $1.7B worth going to the Saudi kingdom.
When Saudi Arabia enters Bahrain to squelch the popular uprisings, as it did on Monday March 14, 2011, one can see Canadian fingerprints on the Saudi armored vehicles rolling ominously down the King Fahd Causeway, the 25 km bridge connecting Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Canadian arm sales to Bahrain are negligible. But the significance of Bahraini arms deals is proportional to the size of the Bahraini army. The revolutionary forces are in a skirmish with the ruling family’s security apparatus, not the military. Bahrain’s government relies entirely on Saudi Arabia’s heavily mechanized military. Failing this, for backup they can count on the United States Navy’s Fifth Fleet, located on its northeast coast and a US airfield in the mainland’s southern half.
It is, then, the Saudi connection that counts and the billions in weapons contracts is Canada’s contribution to the Western world’s regional guarantor of a dynamic business climate and the surrogate enforcer of stability.
Canada’s business interests in the region have been particularly amplified since Export Development Canada, in 2007, announced the permanent establishment of a foreign office in the Cooperation Council for Arab States of the Gulf (GCC). The GCC is a customs union and common market between Oman, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Bahrain. In the nature of reciprocity and on behalf of the GCC, the United Arab Emirates’ government controlled energy holdings company, TAQA, announced the potential for a $10B investment in Alberta, a cauldron of foreign investment and tar sands. TAQA, as of June 2010, acquired a substantial stake in Suncor.
On January 24, 2011, former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, acting as counsel to Heenan Blaikie LLP, signed a moratorium of understanding with Amr Al-Dabbagh, chairman of the board of directors of the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority, in Saudi Arabia. Al-Dabbagh is a member of the World Economic Forum and a member of the Eisenhower Fellowship board of trustees, whose chairman is Retired US General Colin Powell. Other notable members are Henry Kissinger, George H. W. Bush, Madeline Albright, Brent Scowcroft, and a range of CEOs from industrial, financial, and weapons manufacturers including Executive Vice-President Linda Gooden of Lockheed Martin Corporation.
Chrétien’s brokerage of the investment deal deepens the business networks between Canada and its second-largest trading partner in the region, Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, it consolidates Canada’s links with the GCC, on which the stability of Bahrain depends. Much investment in Canada comes from the GCC countries that, since 2003, have become key foreign investors in the global market. Between 1995 and 2006, the total value of the GCC stock market rose from $62B to $733.7B. By 2007, real estate projects in the GCC increased by $1 trillion. From 2003 to 2006, the foreign assets held by GCC countries tripled in value from $10 B to $30 B.
Western governments and corporations have rolled around luxuriously and profitably with the oil sheikhdoms of the Middle East to the diminishment of the standard of living of both Middle East civilians and Canadians at home. It is worth recalling how Prince Bandar Bin-Sultan, Saudi Ambassador in Washington, organized US-based members of the bin Laden family to fly out of Logan Airport in Boston on September 11, 2001, when all other flights were grounded. Saudi officials refused to investigate the bin Laden “charities” that arm the forces our governments wage war against in the Middle East. Americans all received the PATRIOT Act and the Anti-Terrorism Act while the US government provided known financers of terrorism a first-class ticket and what amounts to a private jet. If only we all could be in possession of sovereign wealth funds and oil!
The North American embrace of Saudi Arabia is negating the legitimate aspirations of the Bahraini people for democracy. Let’s resist corporate euphemisms for business opportunities trumping human rights. Canada should cease giving export licenses to manufacturers that provide regimes with atrocious human rights records, like Saudi Arabia, the hardware to perpetuate their rule.
Justin Panos is a Toronto journalist.