rabble blogs are the personal pages of some of Canada's most insightful progressive activists and commentators. All opinions belong to the writer; however, writers are expected to adhere to our guidelines. We welcome new bloggers -- contact us for details.

Dion's sugarcoated Saudi visit unlikely to improve human rights record

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support rabble.ca for as little as $5 per month!

Like this article? rabble is reader-supported journalism. Chip in to keep stories like these coming.

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.


Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.

rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! rabble.ca embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on rabble.ca and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.