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A dramatic spat with Saudi Arabia has forced Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to enter the public fray in a bid to calm tempers. But what’s bothering Canada is the possible loss of a major Saudi arms contract. The row erupted last weekend when Canada’s Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland issued a stern rebuke to Saudi Arabia over the arrest of women’s rights activists in the oil-rich kingdom. One of those arrested, Samar Badawi, has family connections to Canadian citizens. The Saudis hit back immediately with a fierce response. Riyadh said it was expelling the Canadian ambassador, and recalled its own envoy from Ottawa. Saudi Arabia also warned it was cancelling all new trade and investments in Canada.Initially, Canada’s Freeland refused to back down, saying on Monday that her country would “always stand up for human rights.”

The Saudis then escalated the row by announcing new restrictive measures. Riyadh said it was suspending the state airline’s flights to and from Toronto, as well as cancelling imports of Canadian barley and wheat, and recalling thousands of Saudi students, trainee doctors and patients who have been hosted as guests in the country.

Despite the defiant public comments on Monday, by Tuesday Canada’s top diplomat was reportedly trying to patch things up through private phone conversations with Saudi Foreign Minister Abdel al Jubeir. Those conciliatory efforts came to naught. Early Wednesday, the Saudi minister was saying there “would be no mediation.” He insisted that Canada must “correct its mistake” of “interfering in Saudi internal affairs.” It was also reported that the Saudi central bank was disposing of Canadian equities, bonds and cash holdings. But it was the Saudis’ veiled threat of more punitive action that perhaps alarmed the Canadian government most. The Saudi foreign minister said his country was looking at “additional measures against Canada.

It’s an open secret that the Saudis were referring to a major weapons contract that is being finalized with Canada. The arms deal is worth US$11.5 billion (Canadian $15bn). It involves the sale of some 900 combat vehicles with a 14-year follow-up support arrangement. To put that figure into perspective, total annual bilateral trade between Canada and Saudi Arabia is estimated at $4bn. The Saudi arms contract is therefore a very big deal for Canada. It had been speculated by Canadian officials that the Saudis could axe the arms contract as part of its reprisal over the latest row about human rights activists being arrested. Now it seemed that the “additional measures” mentioned cryptically by the Saudi foreign minister were indeed a reference to the weapons deal.

After days of keeping silent on the row, Prime Minister Trudeau entered the fray in a bid to calm tensions. Trudeau didn’t offer a public apology as demanded earlier that day by the Saudi minister, but he did call for diplomacy and dialogue. “Canada will always speak strongly and clearly in private and in public on questions of human rights. We do not wish to have poor relations with Saudi Arabia. Diplomatic talks continue,” said Trudeau….Read more