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It's remarkable how easy it is for a government to sugarcoat a visit to one of the world's most repressive regimes when a juicy $15-billion civilian and military contract is on the table.
Take Global Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion's recent trip to Saudi Arabia, a visit heavily lauded by Global Affairs Canada with references to talks about human rights and pluralism. Dion was invited to the Red Sea port of Jeddah for meetings with Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, defence minister and the powerful son of the king.
"Human rights will be top of mind throughout Minister Dion's visit to the region as he makes the case that the crucial regional stability and the global security that all countries seek must be in lockstep with advances in the protection and promotion of human rights," Global Affairs declared in a news release before Dion's departure. "To that end, Minister Dion will also meet with youth, women's and human rights groups in addition to meeting with government representatives."
True to his word, Dion did meet with activists -- all within the auspicious royal palaces of the king. Photographs on Twitter revealed him with a laughing President Bandar Al-Aiban, the president of the Commission of Human Rights, and Sulaiman Alzaidi, the Jeddah head of the National Society of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia. In a third photograph, Dion is pictured smiling alongside 40 other beaming people, mostly women.
It all looks and sounds fantastic, particularly when you consider the heat Dion was receiving back home for signing a $15-billion deal selling Canadian-made military vehicles to a pariah state that shows no sign of releasing bloggers such as Raif Badawi or introducing the most basic of political freedoms, such as allowing women to enroll their children in school without permission from a male guardian.
But how many of the people in the third photograph were actually activists, as opposed to government officials? And how genuine are the "Commission of Human Rights" and "National Society of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia?"
The answer is a bit muddled. The Canadian Embassy in Riyadh declined to release a list of the people in the third photograph on the grounds that the event was held under Chatham House rules (where identities of participants cannot be revealed). But according to Saudi insiders, many of the women are successful entrepreneurs, tied to esteemed government positions, like the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Others are medical professionals and linked to charity groups.
As for the Commission of Human Rights, the story is more disconcerting.
According to Dr. Hala Aldosari, an independent activist, the commission is more of a governmental organization, in which the president holds the rank of a minister. "It's not independent or even quasi-independent," she told me. "People there directly report to the Royal Court. They are there to present the achievements of Saudi Arabia and the steps they've taken to bring different women to the table. They [rebut] arguments that there are violations [taking place] based on a version of religion which is incompatible with human rights and dignity...instead of really addressing the problems."
Dr. Aldosari now lives in Washington, D.C, where she works as a visiting scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute. She also runs a website called Saudi Women Rights, on which she provides information in Arabic about human rights in general and what to do in cases of domestic abuse.
It's a different story at the National Society for Human Rights, she added. Run by two academics, Dr. Mufleh Alqahtani and Dr. Saleh Alkhathlan, the organization has a mandate to protect human rights in accordance with the United Nations. "They do field visits to prisons and organizations, and they collect statistics and showcase all their reports of abuse online. They are true to their values and are doing a marvellous job given the boundaries they're working in," she said.
For other Saudis, though, the idea of a foreign dignitary meeting "human rights activists" in the House of Saud is laughable. Activists from the minority Shia community, who bear the brunt of attacks from armoured vehicles like the ones Ottawa sold to Riyadh in the $15-billion deal, are also skeptical.
"If (Dion) relies on the government to arrange these meetings, then they will set him up with people who have been couched and guided to address things in favour of the government of Saudi Arabia itself," said Mustafa Al-Nimr, a U.S.-based member of the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights. "They will be chosen, approved, and say what the government wants them to say. He will not hear the truth. Instead, he will hear what the government wants him to hear.
"If the foreign minister wants to meet any activists from Saudi Arabia, then I wish he would arrange the meeting himself with the people directly and maybe secretly for their own safety."
Did Ottawa really address Canadians' concerns over how armoured vehicles have been used in the past against unarmed protesters, and today, in the 14-month war in Yemen? Did it hear alternate narratives of what really happens on the ground in this tight-lipped kingdom? Or was it all about timely photo ops?
Omar Alghabra, the parliamentary secretary who accompanied Dion, told me the trip "was a great opportunity for us to meet with senior officials as high as the king and with independent individuals of organizations to discuss the issues that Canadians expect us to talk about. Did we meet with everyone in the 30-hour visit? Probably not. Did we put an effort into meeting non-officials and individuals of civil society? We did.
"Understanding the other's point of view will enable us to communicate our point of view in a much more effective and persuasive way," he added.
It's a good point. As long as we remember that we're not sitting down with pragmatic players here. The Saudis are experts at putting on charm offensives and continue to be the leading driver of Islamist terror networks worldwide. Isn't it time to call them out on it?
This article originally appeared in the Ottawa Citizen.
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