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Women were only just granted permission to drive in Saudi Arabia, a kingdom with an atrocious human rights record. Canada can and should leverage its ongoing spat with the country to advocate for human rights across the Middle East. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

How Canada could use the Saudi quarrel to help the Middle East – and itself

The diplomatic row that erupted between Canada and Saudi Arabia is based on a mild criticism of an autocracy’s human rights abuses that normally does not get much response.

Yet the Saudi overreaction presents Canada with an opportunity to rethink its Middle East policy. Canada could choose a new path based on universal human rights that would greatly benefit not just Saudi Arabians but those in the broader Middle East and Canadians too.

Mild rebuke

Canada’s critique was quite mild considering how horrible the Saudi government’s human rights record is. For decades, millions of Saudi citizens and indentured labourers have been forced to live in fear under an extremist form of religious rule that inspired ISIS.

This rule is enforced by a repressive religious police and brutal Mabahith secret police.

Religious freedom is non-existent and the situation for women is so bad that they only recently earned the right to drive. Meanwhile, they can still be charged for crimes like defaming their husbands and important decisions are left to the authority of a male guardian.

In Saudi Arabia, counter-terrorism laws are used to stop human rights work. Teens face death by beheading or crucifixion for engaging in protest, Indigenous minority communities are severely repressed, same-sex relationships are punishable by death and “sorcery” is too.

While counter-terrorism laws are used to suppress human rights at home, Saudi donors generously fund terrorism worldwide. Without coincidence, 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9-11 were Saudi. In fact, the Saudi regime seems to see terrorists as a tool, threatening Russia with them at the 2012 Sochi Winter Olympics.

This all adds gravity to a threat tweeted from a Saudi government-linked account implying a suicide attack by an Air Canada jet on Toronto’s iconic CN tower.

The Saudi regime has also been actively oppressing people abroad and contributing to the Middle East’s instability. This includes invading Bahrain to stop a popular uprising, and imposing a blockade on Qatar that might have been an invasion if not stopped by former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

These interventions further involve kidnapping the Lebanese prime minister, strained relations with Turkey tied to the failed 2016 coup there and significant financial support for the Egyptian dictator that overthrew a Turkish-backed democratic government. Saudi Arabia also contributed to Libya’s instability and led a brutal war in Yemen that has created the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe.

The Saudi regime has done this all under the protection of the West. In return, it offers economic buy-offs such as keeping petroleum and investments flowing to countries like Canada. It also includes direct and indirect financing of influential political families like the Bushes, the Clintons, the Trumps, the Blairs, the Mays, the Mulroneys and the Bairds.

Two wrongs don’t make a right

In response to Canada’s human rights criticism, pro-regime social media users pointed out Canada’s failures, like its homelessness crisis and long history of abuse of First Nations peoples. There is also Canada’s distinct double standard on Palestinian human rights.

Read more: The Saudi-Canada spat: Both countries are wrong

Yet Canada’s worst shortcomings are no basis to argue for a Saudi status quo.

Contrary to the views of the mainstream media, Saudi Arabia is not reforming under the progressive leadership of a visionary millennial crown prince. Instead, it is reacting to unending pressure from economic turmoil and an oppressed population seeking freedom. Those pressures are compounded by expensive foreign interventions and funding the lavish lifestyles of the Saudi elite in a country with significant poverty.

Meaningless “reforms” like opening cinemas are offered by an elite desperate to retain the levers of power. They are fearful of the spread of democracy and project these insecurities abroad. The row with Canada only serves as a distraction from the regime’s serious domestic issues and foreign-policy blunders.

Nothing to gain for Canada

Yet the Canadian public has little to gain from wooing a despotic regime desperate to sell its single resource. If the diplomatic row escalates to the extent that Saudi Arabia cancels its military contract for Canadian armoured assault vehicles, all the better for the people they are used against.

Instead, this dispute offers Canada the chance to reflect and to adopt a new foreign policy based on advancing human rights in the Middle East, and supporting the right of the Saudi people to determine their own fate.

Real change would dramatically improve daily life there, contribute to regional stability and reduce poverty through better governance. One can also only imagine how appreciative those people would be of Canada for having advanced their rights, not opposed them.

If in the process Canada is improved by reflecting on its own failings, all the better.

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