Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion will travel to Saudi Arabia next week for talks on how to thwart the expansion of Islamic State and al-Qaeda in the region and government insiders say he will use the visit to speak out about human-rights abuses against women and Shia minorities.
Mr. Dion is seeking a tête-à-tête with 30-year-old Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the powerful son of the Saudi King, who is the also the Defence Minister and head of the country’s economic council.
Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister was invited to the Red Sea port of Jeddah for a meeting on Tuesday of the Gulf Cooperation Council, whose members are Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
The Arab Gulf states have provided large sums of money and arms to Western-backed rebels fighting the Syrian government and Islamic State extremists and are part of a Saudi-led coalition fighting Shia Houthi militants in neighbouring Yemen who are aligned with Iran.
The United Nations has accused the Saudi-led coalition of being responsible for twice the number of civilian deaths in Yemen as all other combatants and for having triggered a severe humanitarian crisis in an already poor country that has led to an expansion of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
“Let’s not forget these are allies we are talking to about security but it doesn’t mean we will be shy about raising our own concerns and that includes human rights across the board,” a government insider told The Globe and Mail.
The Saudis are using Canadian-made combat vehicles in Yemen right now to fight Houthi rebels – machines very similar to those Canada will be shipping to the House of Saud under a $15-billion deal brokered by Ottawa.
Riyadh’s forces have also used armoured vehicles against Saudi Arabia’s Shia minority in the country’s Eastern Province. The Shia enclave of al-Qatif is a hotbed of opposition to the Sunni-dominated government and unrest broke out most recently in the 2011 Arab Spring uprising as well as after Riyadh executed a dissident Shia cleric in January, 2016.
Mr. Dion is expected to tell the Saudis what he has told the House of Commons – that Canada would be opposed to the use of Canadian light armoured vehicles against Shia civilians in the kingdom.
“We will leave no stone unturned but as we have said all along there is no evidence they have been and we continue to monitor it,” the insider said.
It is not among the topics the Saudi monarchy is eager to discuss, but the government insider said Mr. Dion also will question how the Sunni-dominated kingdom is treating its Shia population, and raise the issue of equal rights for women.
During the visit, Mr. Dion also plans to press for the release of imprisoned Saudi blogger Raif Badawi. Mr. Badawi’s spouse and their three children were granted sanctuary in Canada in 2013 and live in Sherbrooke.
The trip is part of a broader fact-finding mission Mr. Dion is undertaking to Cairo and Tunisia, where he will also engage with members of Libya’s new unity government who have sought Canada’s help in stabilizing the lawless country.
Mr. Dion’s visit to Saudi Arabia comes as controversy persists over Ottawa’s $15-billion sale of combat vehicles to Riyadh and whether the deal might help the Mideast country perpetrate human-rights violations.
Earlier this month, The Globe and Mail published footage from Shia activists in al-Qatif showing Riyadh’s forces using armoured vehicles against civilians. The vehicles that were deployed are not Canadian-made, but they demonstrate the Saudis’ proclivity to use such machines against their people.
Ali Adubisi, director of the Berlin-based European-Saudi Organization for Human Rights, says Saudi authorities have deployed armoured vehicles against Shia civilians in Eastern Province more than 15 times since 2011.
The Saudi government regularly says raids and operations in Eastern Province are necessary to combat terrorism.