Conservatives want to restore relations with Saudi Arabia

A Conservative government, if elected this fall, would work to restore Canada-Saudi relations by focusing on areas of mutual interest.
E rin O’Toole, Conservative foreign affairs spokesman, said in an interview that he would try to “gain Saudi confidence” by focusing on improving their trade relations and offering more assistance, development and support to refugees in the Gulf region.

O’Toole said the conservatives would try to renew dialogue with Riyadh despite international outrage over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi last fall in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

“Once you have a relationship, you can then raise the human rights issues related to Saudi Arabia’s actions in the Khashoggi case, the democratic reforms, and all those things,” said Mr. O’Toole added that a Conservative government would seek common ground in the same way with China, India and the Philippines.

“If we have no relationship, we are just shouting in a vacuum. We have no impact on them. ”

Mr. O’Toole acknowledged that for some Canadians, re-establishing ties with Saudi Arabia will be difficult to accept after Mr. Khashoggi’s death.

A year ago, the first in a series of critical messages about the arrest of women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia was posted on Canadian government Twitter accounts, including the account of Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland. The messages called for the release of activists.

Irritated by Canada’s public reprimand, Saudi Arabia responded with a few days later by suspending diplomatic relations with Canada, expelling the Canadian ambassador and recalling his own Ottawa envoy.

She also said that she would put an end to new trade and investment agreements and important scholarships for her citizens to study in Canada. The Saudi central bank and public pension funds began selling their Canadian assets.

And since last fall, few public signs of rapprochement have been observed.

Internal federal documents show that, in the weeks following the start of the conflict, Ms. Freeland and her Saudi counterpart “discussed ideas to defuse (…) including a step-by-step approach that could include a series of steps”. The information was in a September note obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

However, the death of Mr. Khashoggi in October 2018, which drew the condemnation of Canada and many other members of the international community, presented a new challenge.

Freeland has repeatedly called for an independent international investigation to bring Khashoggi’s killers to justice. Canada also imposed 17 murder-related sanctions on 17 Saudis, frozen their assets and banned them from entering the country.

Dennis Horak, the former Canadian ambassador who was expelled from Riyadh a year ago, said it would probably be very difficult for a federal government to talk openly about rebuilding the relationship.

“I do not think the dust has dropped enough to make it easy for the government, politically, to suddenly resume relations with the Saudis,” said Horak, who retired from public service after being summoned to leave the kingdom.

Despite the obstacles, he said Canada should try to repair its tense relations with Saudi Arabia, as other countries have done, including Germany and Sweden.

“It’s not perfect, it’s not a straight line, but there are positive steps that have taken place over the years and are still happening,” said Horak. “If we want this country to change, we have to involve them.”

Some Middle East experts, including Mr. Horak, believe that the conflict could jeopardize Canada’s chances of securing a coveted seat on the UN Security Council. They believe that Riyadh could put pressure on their regional allies to ignore Canada in the vote next year.

Businesses and institutions said they felt the effects of the conflict in several areas, from engineering services to agriculture, to health care.

Andrew Padmos, Executive Director of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada, said that thanks to an effective four-decade-old program, between 20 and 25 per cent of Saudi doctors in the kingdom had at least some of their training in medicine in Canada.

After initially ordering these individuals to return home, Riyad allowed medical trainees or residents already in Canada to complete their work. However, it did not allow new students to go to Canada.

Padmos said the program has seen many Saudi families spend up to a decade in Canada, have several Canadian-born children, and return home with a new perspective.

“We will do more in this way for human rights around the world, through this type of diplomatic and educational exchange, that any number of speeches or messages on Twitter could do,” he said. .

“The sad thing about this case is that this one communication, which was handled in an unusual way, triggered a landslide that hit us. And we’re not out yet. ”

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