The Trudeau Liberals Can’t Stop Themselves From Selling Arms to Antidemocratic Gulf States

In spite of the frequent lip service they pay to human rights and peace, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have yet to find an antidemocratic Gulf state to which they won’t sell arms. Qatar is the newest potential client being wooed for Canadian-made weapons of war.

Justin Trudeau, Canada's prime minister, speaks during a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, February 23, 2022. (David Kawai / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

For years, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government has whitewashed concerns about — and refused to terminate — a $14-billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia. The Trudeau government is now actively working to secure yet another contract between a Canadian arms manufacturer and an antidemocratic Gulf state. This time the prospective buyer is Qatar.

As with the Saudi deal, the pending agreement with Qatar signals the Trudeau government’s prioritization of Canada’s military-industrial base over its purported concerns about human rights and progressive values. It is also yet another reminder that Canada’s geopolitical and military priorities are not motivated by concerns for advancing liberal democracy, despite lip service that Trudeau pays to that claimed objective whenever it is convenient.

Finally, the deal further belies the Trudeau government’s representation of itself as a reluctant bystander to the Saudi exports. Liberal ministers have repeatedly suggested that they wanted to find a way out of the deal, but lamented that they were hamstrung by the fact that killing it would carry the cost of the full value of the contract. If Trudeau truly cared about keeping Canadian-made weapons out of the hands of authoritarian states — never a credible proposition in the first place — then his government would not be actively lobbying for a new deal with a similarly antidemocratic regime.

The World Cup Visit

Ahead of his visit to the FIFA World Cup in Doha last year, International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan was instructed to lobby for a potential deal between the Canadian division of General Dynamics Land Systems (GDLS) — which exports light-armored vehicles to Saudi Arabia — and the Qatari military. In a briefing note prepared for a meeting with Qatar’s foreign affairs minister and deputy prime minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, Sajjan was told to explain that Canada was “pleased that GDLS is interested in working with the Qatari Military for the supply of light-armored vehicles (LAVs) as well as other opportunities.”

“This partnership would bring Canada and Qatar significant benefits,” the briefing note added. Canada “sincerely hope[s] to see this opportunity for cooperation between our countries realized.” Sajjan’s itinerary also indicates that the day before his meeting with Al-Thani, the Canadian minister attended a closed-door meeting with the Canadian Business Council in Qatar at the Canadian embassy, where he was expected to meet GDLS representatives. Further details about the LAV deal, including if and when it will be finalized, have not been disclosed.

Light-armored vehicles are recognized for their versatility by arms monitoring experts, and have been used by governments to quash domestic unrest, such as the Bahrain government during the 2011 and 2012 protests.

Arming Qatar

The revelation that this kind of deal has been in the works did not come as a surprise. Qatar was added to Canada’s Automatic Firearms Country Control List (AFCCL) in August 2022, suggesting that a major deal was under discussion, as reported by the Globe and Mail last December.

Qatar is undergoing a massive investment in its armed forces. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), arms imports to the Gulf state spiked by 311 percent between 2013 to 2017 and 2018 to 2022, making it the third-largest importer in the world between 2018 and 2022. Indeed, Sajjan’s briefing note ominously stated that Qatar’s military modernization is motivated in part by a desire to “develop comparable capabilities to western nations, especially for purposes of multi-national deployments and inter-operability.” This assessment reads like diplomatic speak for the type of foreign interventions that have led to massive bloodshed and destabilization in the region.

Qatar initially deployed one thousand troops to support Saudi Arabia’s murderous bombing campaign in Yemen, contributing to a war whose death toll resulted in an estimated 377,000 deaths by the end of 2021. Following a diplomatic row with the Saudis that emerged in 2017, Qatar withdrew its forces from Yemen, where the war now, thankfully, looks to be coming to an end. However, Qatar has a track record of meddling in other regional conflicts, such as in Libya and Syria.

In addition to its rising militarization, Qatar has a dire domestic human rights record. In particular, its poor treatment of migrant foreign workers came under scrutiny during the World Cup, with reforms that were promised ahead of the tournament failing to end the exploitation and abuse. According to Amnesty International, the Qatari state criminalizes same-sex relationships, stifles critical voices, and maintains laws that require women to seek permission from “male guardians” to make basic life decisions. Concerns about advancing human rights were absent in the list of objectives laid out in Sajjan’s strategic overview for his visit to Qatar.

Importantly, arms deals such as the proposed LAV agreement are not struck to simply bolster armories — Qatar already has a surfeit of international suppliers and weapons — and the profits of the arms industry. Such deals are also key to gaining political leverage and regional power projection. By pressing for such a deal, Canada is evidently seeking to strengthen its diplomatic ties with an authoritarian state in a region where past Canadian influence has helped fuel misery and violence.

The Saudi Deal

The pending deal with Qatar follows a similar and highly controversial agreement between GDLS and the Saudis. Despite Canada and Saudi Arabia being locked, at least publicly, in a diplomatic spat since 2018, the Canadian-made LAVs have continued to flow apace to the Saudi monarchy. As of last year, the value of exports to the kingdom reached hundreds of millions of dollars per month. In 2021, Saudi Arabia was by far Canada’s largest non-US arms export destination, with sales totaling $1.7 billion.

The LAV deal with Saudi Arabia was first arranged in 2014 under the watch of then prime minister Stephen Harper — who has shamelessly bragged that he is proud of having brokered the deal — but was given the final green light by the Trudeau government. A 2016 document explaining the Liberal government’s decision to go ahead with the deal stated that “these proposed exports are consistent with Canada’s defense and security interests in the Middle East.” The document further claimed there was no evidence to suggest that the LAVs would be used by the Saudis to commit human rights abuses, despite the kingdom’s dire humanitarian record and campaign in Yemen.

The document also stressed the size of GDLS’s industrial operations within Canada, stating that the company “anchors Canada’s defense industry cluster in southern Ontario, and supports a supply chain of over 500 Canadian firms.” But apart from the industrial value of the deal — and its bolstering of Canada’s arms industry for the specific benefit of supplying the Canadian Armed Forces — the document called Saudi Arabia “an important and stable ally” and even praised it for “countering instability in Yemen.”

In March 2018, the Trudeau government continued to defend the deal, with the prime minister himself stating that “our approach fully meets our national obligations and Canadian laws.” Five months later, public-facing relations between the two countries soured dramatically when then foreign minister Chrystia Freeland called on the Saudis to immediately release dissidents Samar and Raif Badawi from jail (a call which, it turned out, had been part of a longer push for their release behind the scenes). Despite an aggressive public reaction from the Saudis, however, the LAV deal was unaffected.

The Trudeau government came under even more pressure when the Saudi monarchy ordered the brutal assassination and dismemberment of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018. By this time, the prime minister had begun blaming the previous Conservative government for making it “very difficult to suspend or leave that contract,” even as he insisted that he was “looking for a way out” of the deal. Trudeau stated that he could not divulge details about the contract but hinted that “I do not want to leave Canadians holding a billion-dollar bill.”

The steep cost of terminating the contract became an oft-repeated talking point by Trudeau government ministers, even as they temporarily suspended new export permits for military goods to Saudi Arabia and announced a review of the existing deal in response to the killing of Khashoggi. GDLS itself, apparently spooked by mounting public criticism of the LAV deal, warned the Liberal government that canceling the agreement would cost billions in financial penalties and jobs.

As it turned out, GDLS had little to worry about. In 2019, a Global Affairs Canada briefing note for Freeland claimed that “officials found no credible evidence linking Canadian exports of military equipment or other controlled items to any human rights or humanitarian law violations committed by the Saudi government.” Despite acknowledging reports that older Canadian-made LAVs had been deployed along the Saudi-Yemini border, the note claimed: “There are no confirmed reports of Canadian-made military equipment being deployed by KSA on Yemeni territory.” This statement would be rebutted by arms monitoring group Project Ploughshares and Amnesty International.

It’s Not a Lie If We Cross Our Fingers

In 2021, those groups published a report that picked apart the Trudeau government’s “flawed analysis” of the deal and accused it of violating international law by arming the Saudi monarchy. “There is persuasive evidence that weapons exported from Canada to KSA [Kingdom of Saudi Arabia], including LAVs [light-armored vehicles] and sniper rifles, have been diverted for use in the war in Yemen,” the report found. The Trudeau government, the report’s authors explained, was using an intentionally narrow focus to study the risks of the deal that “completely misse[d] the mark on Canada’s obligations under the Arms Trade Treaty” (which Canada acceded to after Khashoggi’s death).

However, more pressing concerns appeared to be at play in the Trudeau government’s decision-making. Notably, the 2019 briefing note stressed:

Canada-KSA bilateral tensions and the moratorium on the issuance of new permits are having a negative impact on Canadian exporters … Engagement by departmental officials with 20 companies that have a history of exporting to KSA suggests that approximately $2 billion in trade has been affected since August 2018.

In April 2020, with public attention conveniently diverted by the chaos of the pandemic’s first wave, the Trudeau government lifted its temporary freeze on new permits for military exports to Saudi Arabia and announced it had renegotiated some of the terms of the GDLS deal. At this point, the Liberal government revealed for the first time that it would be responsible for the full $14-billion value of the deal if it terminated the agreement. This added a concrete figure to the well-rehearsed talking point that portrayed Trudeau as having his hands economically tied on the matter. And so the exports continued.

The pending deal with Qatar, likely to be the next authoritarian destination for a large chunk of Canada’s arms export industry, flies in the face of Trudeau’s cheerful branding of Canada as a world champion for human rights. But it also counters his government’s claims that it was reluctantly bound by the risk of steep economic costs if it canceled the deal with Saudi Arabia. Just like the Saudi deal, the push for a new deal with Qatar shows that the demands of the arms industry’s profitability trump respect for democracy and any desire to end human suffering.