By Hussain Ehsani, July 10, 2023
After five years of strained diplomatic relations, on May 24, Global Affairs Canada (GAC) announced that Canada would restore its diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia. The Statement mentioned that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with Saudi Arabia’s Mohammad bin Salman on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and agreed to revive their diplomatic relationship last November.
The Kingdom is pursuing a new policy of handshaking with yesterday’s adversaries and seeking to restore disputed relations. First they restored ties with Iran. After that, the Kingdom started re-establishing ties with Syria (they cut off the relationship after the insurgency inside Syria in 2011). And now, the Kingdom is moving forward to restore its relationship with Canada.
Riyadh is shaping a new approach to its foreign policy to create the perception that it is a constructive player in the international system. For instance, Saudi Arabia’s Royal Navy ships and air force played a significant role in evacuating Western officials and allies from the Republic of Sudan while the county struggled with Civil War.
This ‘new’ Saudi Arabia presents an opportunity for Canada but also presents some difficult questions: How should Canada view this ‘new’ Saudi Arabia? And, recognizing the position of Saudi Arabia in the broader global order and the Middle East specifically, how could Canada navigate the new paradigm to further its foreign policy objectives despite challenges presented by the regime’s human rights record?
Saudi Arabia’s rule in the Muslim world is essential. Saudi Arabia is a leader of the Arab and Muslim worlds and the Guardian of the Two Holy Mosques (Mecca and Medina). The position of Saudi Arabia among the Arab League, Muslim world, and in the Middle East is undeniable. The Kingdom has sought to promote peace and stability in the region through religious influence. One remarkable effort of the Kingdom was procuring a cease-fire in Lebanon after fifteen years of endless civil war through the so-called Taif Accord in 1975-1990. More recently, in a collaborative effort with Washington, Riyadh tried to create a cease fire between Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and De Facto ruler forces in Sudan on June 10, 2023, for the sake of starting reconciliation talks between two sides. Another example of the Saudi’s engagement was their efforts to counter the narrative of ISIS’s propaganda campaign.
After restoring relations between Ottawa and Riyadh, Canada announced further support for peace, security, and stability in Middle East during the Foreign Ministers’ Meeting of the Global Coalition against Daesh in Riyadh, June 9, 2023. Saudi Arabia could be a strategic ally for Canada -as a power balancer and peace seeker- in counter-terrorism and peace resolution in the Middle East, a region of ongoing conflict.
For example, Canada could play a significant role in bringing the Kingdom to the negotiation table with Israel. The Abraham Accords peace agreements promote peace and stability in the Middle East through the normalization of relations with Israel and its Muslim neighbours. It revolutionized the region’s security paradigm. With the normalization of bilateral relations between Saudi Arabia and Canada, and Canada’s role as a peace seeker, our country could encourage Saudi Arabia to start an economic relationship with Israel as a first step in joining the Abraham Accords. Although Saudi Arabia has not yet taken part in the Accords, the Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs mentioned normalizing a relationship with Israel as an effort in the best interest of the region.
In addition, Riyadh has been a tremendous market for Canada. According to Global Affairs Canada (GAC), “In 2021, Canadian exports to Saudi Arabia amounted to $2.2 billion, and imports represented $2.4 billion.” Even while there was a rift between Riyadh and Ottawa, the amount of trade reached 2.5 billion dollars. Furthermore, Omer Allam argues in the Financial Post that Saudi Arabia has many economic attractions, such as “new trade partnership models, [that] orchestrate clear value proposition to build high-growth exports, and pick top markets in which to invest and sectors with a clear competitive edge.” Ottawa should be designing an international investment strategy and include the Kingdom as a priority market.
To be clear, there are real challenges ahead in Ottawa’s relations with the Kingdom. The Saudi’s remain a closed authoritarian regime that snuffs out dissent and opposition in the most ruthless ways – as outlined by the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Canada, along with its allies, also needs to pay attention to Saudi’s increasing desire to hedge against its traditional partnership with the US in favour of a multi vector foreign policy that simultaneously courts autocrats in Russia and China.
Despite these apparent challenges, in the new paradigm Saudi Arabia could be a strategic ally of Canada in promoting peace and stability in the Middle East (by joining the Abraham Accords), in counter-terrorism efforts against ISIS, and in enhancing bilateral trade.
Hussain Ehsani is a Middle East affairs analyst.