diplomatic crisis

Cost of confrontation: Canada stands to lose a great deal from its spat with Saudi Arabia

Riyadh is Ottawa’s largest trading partner in the Middle East and North Africa.

The sudden and unexpected diplomatic crisis between Canada and Saudi Arabia has raised questions about their levels of bilateral economic relations, the $12-billion arms sale signed by the two countries in 2014, and the fate of thousands of Saudi students pursuing higher education at Canadian universities.

This spat was ignited when the Saudi government ordered the expulsion of Canada’s ambassador and halted “all new business and investment transactions with Canada”. This was in response to tweets from Canada’s foreign affairs minister, Chrystia Freeland, and her ministry’s Twitter account criticising the arrest of human rights activist Samar Badawi.

But before delving into the repercussions of this crisis, an overall assessment of Canadian-Saudi relations is needed.

Substantial trade

According to a fact sheet published on the Canadian government’s website, Saudi Arabia is Canada’s largest trading partner in the Middle East and North Africa. The overall value of trade between the two nations between 2011 and 2017 was 3-4 billion Canadian dollars.

While not negligible, these numbers do not compare to Canada’s trade with the United States, which amounted to $673.9 billion in 2017. Nonetheless, Riyadh’s move to freeze all business with Ottawa could deprive Canada of tremendous opportunities for collaboration and investment in Saudi Arabia.

With the new Vision 2030 launched by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom is becoming increasingly open to foreign direct investment. It is diversifying its infrastructure projects and planning a shift to a green economy that is less dependent on fossil fuels. All of these sectors present commercial opportunities for Canadian industries, but Ottawa seems on its way to missing out on them.

There is also a $15 billion deal to sell light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia that is now in jeopardy. The deal, if scrapped, could be a blow to Canada’s defence industry, which employs 65,000 people and contributes $6 billion annually to the country’s gross domestic product.

David Perry, a senior analyst and fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, argued that foreign arms’ sales “allow Canadian firms to keep plants operating, workforces employed, supply chains intact and engineers busy researching and developing new technology”. “The Saudi deal will keep the thousands of unionised shop floor workers and engineers at the GDLS-C plant in London, Ontario, employed for year,” Perry added.

Another area of cooperation that cannot be overlooked is educational exchange and its remarkable contribution to the Canadian economy. There are around 7,000 Saudi students on government scholarships studying in Canada. Statistics from the Canadian Bureau for International Education reveal that students from Saudi Arabia made up two per cent of Canada’s 4,94,525 international students in 2017.

Unfortunately, the fate of these thousands of students remains undetermined as the kingdom decided to withdraw them and relocate them to other countries in retaliation of Canada’s criticism of its human rights record. This will have a negative impact on their academic standings and studies.

Why the spat?

Canada has made the promotion of human rights, including women’s rights and the rights of religious minorities, a top priority of its foreign policy and diplomatic initiatives.

It is therefore appropriate to demand Saudi Arabia release political prisoners and abide by human rights standards. As has been widely documented, the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia is abysmal, and the kingdom has been accused of committing war crimes in Yemen.

But Ottawa has fallen into the trap of “double standards” when dealing with the issue of human rights. When human rights violations are linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Canada turns a blind eye and refrains from condemning the killings and imprisonments of Palestinian children and young people, the confiscation of Palestinian lands and the establishment of illegal settlements.

A consistent and fair approach would see Ottawa either condemning both Israel and Saudi Arabia, or turning a blind eye to both of them.

The Saudi reaction

The Saudi reaction to Canada’s criticism has been portrayed as “reckless, impulsive, and aggressive” by Sultan Barakat, director of the Center for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies at the Doha Institute. Similarly, Lloyd Axworthy, a former Canadian foreign affairs minister, likens it to a Donald Trump-esque fit of pique marked by intimidation and saber-rattling.

Despite unanimous agreement among political commentators and analysts that the Saudi reaction is exaggerated, Saudi leadership could exploit this crisis to garner domestic support and to thwart all attempts to criticise the kingdom’s draconian crackdown on political dissidents.

Foreign relations and foreign policy are often meant to advance national interests. So what did Canadian foreign policy makers want to achieve by going after Saudi Arabia publicly?

If the aim was to alleviate the circumstances of Samar Badawi and her imprisoned brother, Raif, to influence the broader direction of the Saudi leadership or to rally other like-minded countries to speak up against the human rights violations in the kingdom, then the results were disastrous.

Canadian foreign policymakers could have adopted a more professional approach to address the issues of human rights in the kingdom while maintaining strong strategic and economic ties. In other words, it is about finding a way to calibrate what Thomas Juneau, professor at the University of Ottawa, calls the costs of tactical disagreements and the benefits of strategic alignment.

Canada’s relationship with Saudi Arabia is actually advantageous on several fronts. There is no doubt navigating the relationship was tricky at times, but the alternative will be seriously detrimental to Canada if Saudi Arabia intensifies its aggressive measures against us.

Houssem Ben Lazreg is a PhD candidate and teaching assistant at the University of Alberta.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.