Adena Eliasoph Canada Defense Diplomatic Relations Saudi Arabia Security, Trade and the Economy The Middle East and North Africa

Business as Usual: A Spotlight on Saudi Arabia’s Troubling Human Rights Record

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper greets the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz at the G-20 Summit. In 2014, Canada signed a historic and highly controversial $15 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia. The Canadian government is under scrutiny for failing to conduct a comprehensive human rights assessment of Saudi.




The Modern Saudi Landscape
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (Saudi) is the key economic driver of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nations, possessing approximately 25% of the world’s petroleum reserves. Historically, Saudi has been a key ally to the west, standing as a model for Middle Eastern stability in a tumultuous region. In recent years, the oil-rich nation has taken great steps to diversify its economy away from reliance on oil/gas revenues, moving into industries such as tourism, healthcare and manufacturing. This process has created lucrative opportunities for both public and private enterprise, allowing for countries like Canada to capitalize on new and emerging markets – such as arms manufacturing. In 2014, Canada and Saudi signed a historic $15 billion arms deal, with the Canadian government refusing to comment on whether it obtained assurances that the arms would not be used against the civilian population. This is a guarantee required by federal export controls, when arms are delivered to nations with persistent human rights violations.

It has been asserted that Canada’s decision to not become party to the multilateral Arms Trade Treaty stems from the nation’s already excellent export control system for weapons. Canada is the only member state of the NATO military alliance and the Group of Seven wealthy industrialized nations which has not signed the agreement. This has led many human rights groups, such as Amnesty International, to criticize the Canadian government’s actions in prioritizing economic interest over human rights and transparency. According to a 2015 report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Saudi leads annual military spending in the Middle East region, having doubled its military expenditure in the past ten years. The security situation in Saudi today is a harsh reality, and marginalized groups like the Saudi Shiite’s continue to experience systemic violence and discrimination. The conflict in Yemen continues to occupy the attention of Saudi leadership as the Gulf nation continues to battle both foreign and domestic militancy, as well as addressing the growing needs of Saudi’s minority groups.

Life in the Kingdom
According to a 2015 Human Rights Watch report, systemic discrimination against women, religious minorities, and political dissidents is rampant in Saudi Arabia, leaving hundreds of individuals subjected to arbitrary detention and a lack of due process in legal proceedings. As outlined in the report, 68 individuals were executed between January and November 2014, with 31 of those individuals convicted of non-violent crimes, including drug smuggling and sorcery. In August 2014 alone, 19 people were beheaded in 17 days, eight for committing non-violent offences. Freedom of speech in Saudi is heavily restricted and in 2014 almost two years after his initial arrest, Raif Badawi, a Saudi human rights activist and writer, was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and a decade in prison by Jedah’s Criminal Court. The brutality of his punishment prompted an Amnesty International petition for his release, which has since garnered over one million signatures. 2015 has witnessed a spike in executions, and in January alone, 85 people were beheaded in Saudi, leading the Saudi Ministry of Civil Service to announce a new campaign intended to recruit and retain executioners for beheadings. Executions and torture claims are merely a part of the overall human rights violations which take place everyday in the Gulf state.

In recent months, human rights activists have been mobilizing to condemn systemic and widespread human rights violations in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Protesters urge for an end to torture and a higher level of political transparency.



Women and girls experience heavy discrimination in Saudi, with numerous barriers in place to prevent their active participation in social, economic, and political life. In 2012, Saudi reportedly held an all-male women’s rights conference, where the topic of ‘women in society’ was actively discussed amongst male representatives of 15 countries. Domestic migrant workers, many of whom are female, endure a range of abuses including overwork, forced confinement, withholding of wages, food deprivation, and physical, psychological and sexual abuse. Moreover, workers who report these abuses face prosecution based on counterclaims and the use of deportation to politically unstable jurisdictions. Despite the long list of human rights abuses, Saudi has initiated a lobbying campaign to assume leadership of the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) at the end of 2016. Described by Hillel Neuer of UN Watch as “the final nail in the coffin for the credibility” of the HRC, electing Saudi as a world judge on human rights could delegitimize the newly reformed council and the norms it upholds.

Contextualizing Canada’s National Interests
Although diversification efforts have been largely positive, concerns remain in the social systems of Saudi and the standards by which the nation operates with respect to democratic norms, the rule of law, and human rights. By association, these standards are reflected in the value propositions of any nation which seeks increased economic engagement with the Gulf state. The past year has been a difficult one for Saudi, with several challenging events which garnered international attention, including the domestic security situation, the ongoing threat of ISIS, the health implications of Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), and the death of the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz.

The 2014 arms deal between Canada and Saudi is a signal of renewed relations between the two nations, and is believed to be the beginning of a period of increased growth and collaboration. Canada could follow the precedent set by countries such as Sweden and Germany, whose governments both halted the shipment of arms to Saudi over concerns of regional instability and human rights abuses. At the very least, a higher degree of dialogue and human rights talks should take place in parallel while the Saudi-Canada arms deal is negotiated.

Adena Eliasoph
Adena holds a Masters degree in International Relations from Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia and an honours undergraduate degree in Psychology from the University of Ottawa. Adena has had the great fortune to travel extensively and live in diverse jurisdictions, empowering her to continually expand her personal and professional development and explore new avenues of knowledge acquisition. During her studies, her research interests focused on conflict resolution, global health, international law and institutions and the protection of women and children in zones of conflict. Adena’s current research interests include women in security, peacekeeping, international business and economic policy and the globalization of health. Adena currently coordinates the public affairs and government relations portfolio at Atlas Global Healthcare, a real estate development firm which specializes in building multi-specialty ambulatory care facilities in the GTA and beyond.