August 7, 2018 -Interview on The Ryan Jespersen Show -The State of Canada-Saudi Arabia Relations (Such as They Are)

Let’s turn our attention to matters of international news. You heard over the weekend the kingdom of Saudi Arabia expelling Canada’s ambassador and diplomats to that country and pulling back what turns out to be more than 15,000 students, Saudi students that are attending universities and colleges here in Canada, many of them benefiting from the King Abdullah Scholarship Program, which covers tuition, flights and accommodations, a stipend for living expenses. A small portion of the students are actually Saudi doctors who are here in Canada training for specialization, this administered through the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada. Not a lot of people are talking about the fact that these doctors, who typically would return back to Saudi Arabia to practice, are actually working in Canadian hospitals, 15 of them serving about 20,000 Canadian patients.

 

So some of these story lines will be significant. Some of them maybe not so much. Many people are arguing that Saudi Arabia’s move actually really doesn’t matter to Canada at all. We thought we’d hit this from a number of different angles and so in about 10 minutes’ time, we’re gonna talk to [Amir Adoran 00:01:19] from the University of Ottawa. He wants to talk about that photo released on Twitter over the weekend, released and then deleted, and then the account deleted. Did you see this one from what is perceived or what might be understood to be a government, the Saudi government Twitter account, that shows an Air Canada jet flying straight at the CN tower in Toronto? It reads, “Sticking one’s nose where it doesn’t belong.” As the Arabic saying goes, “He who interferes with what doesn’t concern him finds what doesn’t please him.”

 

Well, of course it’s reminiscent of 9/11, where the majority of hijackers were Saudi citizens. Now of course, before the tweet and then the account was deleted, officials said, “No, no, no, no, no, the picture was meant to represent Canadian foreign diplomats on their way back to Ontario.”

 

Uh huh. We get to that with Amir Adoran in about 10 minutes, and then [Mark 00:02:12] [inaudible 00:02:12] of Energy News believes that Canada has a way that it can leverage a pretty significant response. We’re talking about the Energy File in about 23 minutes.

 

But [inaudible 00:02:23] off for us today, he’s an immigration lawyer, in the 10:00 block here, a partner at Stewart, Sharma, Harsanyi, Raj Sharma. Raj, welcome back to the show.

Raj Sharma:

Thanks for having me on.

Ryan Jespersen:

Yeah, before we get into some of the specifics, your general thoughts on this developing story.

Raj Sharma:

Well, my general thought is that we now have this spat or kerfuffle with Saudi Arabia and it began with a tweet. My first thought was that perhaps less international diplomacy and even less announcements of immigration policy should be done via Twitter. That was my first thought on it. The Saudis are taking umbrage at these two innocuous words, the call for the immediate release of some activists, particularly woman activists. I think some background is important. Some of the activists … one of the activists is actually the sister of Raif Badawi. Now, that’s Samar Badawi and she’s been imprisoned.

 

Raif Badawi was this blogger. He criticized the Saudi regime. His wife in Ensaf Haider and their three kids fled to Canada after his arrest in 2012. Now, they are all Canadian citizens now. I assume that they were granted status and protection here, perhaps a refugee claim, and from her position here, safe and sound in Canada, she’s been vocal in her criticism of KSA, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

 

So that’s the background and so you have this sort of standard critique tweeted out and the Saudis seem to have taken this umbrage, and it’s important to view that … it’s a harsh reaction. They’ve expelled the Canadian ambassador, they recalled their own ambassador, they’ve frozen new trade and investment, and of course, they’ve told about 15,000 Saudi students to pack their bags. They’ve suspended flights from Toronto as well. So this is that harsh reaction to a fairly mild, run of the mill, standard criticism that they’ve heard before. So our bilateral ties and trade are really marginal. We only do about 3 to $4 billion of trade with the Saudis per year. That’s about the equivalent of two days of trade with the US, Ryan.

 

Now, we do import about 9 to 10% of crude oil and related products from the Saudis, so this might give the lobby that wants to increase, of course, or decrease our reliance on imports as well.

 

So that’s the background. I suppose it’s an accumulation of frustrations, and I think you’re not gonna see two more diametrically opposite leaders than the hefty alpha male Mohammed Bin Salman, referred to as MBS, and our own progressive feminist yoga practitioning prime minister.

Ryan Jespersen:

I can’t tell if that’s a shot at Trudeau or not or if you’re just calling a spade a spade.

Raj Sharma:

That’s not a shot at all. That’s just a spade a spade. He himself has called himself a feminist. I find these two leaders to be striking in their relation to each other, and so I suppose for that … and again, it reveals, perhaps, some insecurity on the part of the Saudis or MBS. But you have, of course … they tried to deepen trade, so they’ve given this sweetheart deal of a $4 billion LAV, light armored vehicle, trade to the Canadians and they hoped that that would lead to additional or strengthening ties. Of course, they could have given the deal to someone else. They could have given it to France or one of the European countries. So they gave this deal, the sweetheart deal, and the Liberals upheld it. That led to a firestorm of criticism by the media and others, and I suppose the Saudis and others might see that as hypocrisy, that you’re speaking out of both sides of your mouth, that you-

Ryan Jespersen:

Now Raj, it’s difficult optically, isn’t it? And again, we [inaudible 00:06:50] form a number of angles. I’m glad you brought this one up. It’s difficult optically for a federal government like Canada to say that there’s essential an abhorrent human rights violation playing out here, so much so that we’re meddling in another country’s sovereign affairs … this is how the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is putting it … suggesting that the way that the Kingdom conducts itself is absolutely unacceptable, and then we turn around and sell them a bunch of heavy assault vehicles. I think a lot of Canadians had a problem and still do have a problem with that.

Raj Sharma:

I have a huge problem with this. I handle refugee claims from Yemen and we’re talking about perhaps the worst humanitarian crisis, next to Syria.

Ryan Jespersen:

That’s where these vehicles are being used.

Raj Sharma:

Exactly. So I suppose it would be easier if we were to cancel that deal or if the Liberals were to cancel that deal, and then they would then be free to criticize as well. So that is what smacks of hypocrisy. Now, the difference is that Canada and the US and western democracies were used to criticizing countries like Saudi with questionable human rights practices, as well as China. But these countries are now less likely to stomach these criticisms and they’ve either been emboldened by China’s assertiveness in this regard and perhaps the US, perhaps emboldened by the Trump administration, because you see that the US is far more transactional towards its allies, and again, you saw this milquetoast, insipid, neutral response by the US in response to the spat between us and the Saudis.

Ryan Jespersen:

They don’t wanna pick a side.

Raj Sharma:

Yeah, and that’s remarkable. And that’s remarkable, because normally the US would pick a side and that would be us.

Ryan Jespersen:

Yeah, but there’s nothing normal about US-Canada relations right now.

Raj Sharma:

No, absolutely not. So there’s a number of things to unpack. I think it’s gonna take time for the dust to settle. I attended the University of Alberta, I knew a number of Saudi doctors under that exchange program, and I really feel for them. You’ve got 15,000 or so blameless, innocent students, some that are married with kids in Canada, kids born in Canada, and they’ve been told to pack their bags in the middle of … right before the start of education. So that is going to be unfortunate, and again, to some degree, there’s gonna be costs imposed on the Saudis as well. Some estimates are that a third of their doctors have been trained in Canada.

Ryan Jespersen:

I was blown away to see that 16,000 Saudi students are currently studying at Canadian post secondary institutions. 16,000. [inaudible 00:09:38] this is how it becomes personal, [inaudible 00:09:43] I know for sure this impacts us. I’ve got a tenant that rents from us. He’s a doctor from Saudi Arabia. I guess I’ll need to start looking for a new tenant. I mean, that makes it real on a personal level.

Raj Sharma:

I suppose MBS provided him with an official notice to terminate that tenancy.

Ryan Jespersen:

I’d be curious to know. Listen, the phone number that ends in 347. If you sent that text, follow up, let us know if you hear from them, and even if it’s in days to come. Our guest here on the phone Raj Sharma, an immigration lawyer.

 

My colleague, [Matt Gurney 00:10:10], that’s a … he works at [inaudible 00:10:14] News Radio 640 in Toronto. He sent a tweet yesterday that kind of resonated with me. It kind of characterized, Raj, how I felt about the whole thing. Matt Gurney says, “This might be a naïve comment on my part and maybe this is a bigger deal for reasons I’m just not aware of, but if any country is going to be mad at us, isn’t Saudi Arabia a pretty good one?”

Raj Sharma:

Well, my response goes back to their actions in Yemen. They have been very, very assertive and MBS is not quite the reformer that individuals have made him out to be or media organizations have made him out to be. They have their own agenda at this time, and frankly, that agenda, jailing woman activists … and again, this diametric opposite leadership, they’re jailing women activists. Reform is very, very difficult and they are promoting this sort of hyper nationalism as well, and it’s run up to this potentially conflict with Iran. They’re digging a trench. They’re cutting Qatar off from the Arabian peninsula. I don’t know if individuals know that or not but they’re essentially turning Qatar into an island. They’ve already isolated other countries as well, and so you’re seeing … and again, if you look at the moral high ground, the moral high ground is Canada took in 50,000 Syrian refugees. How many refugees did Saudi take in for their co-religions? A big fat-

Ryan Jespersen:

[inaudible 00:11:51] zero.

Raj Sharma:

I believe zero. And so I am very comfortable in terms of the moral high ground here, and I think that tweet may have been unfortunate perhaps, perhaps, but I think it may simply have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. I think, frankly, that response with the photo that juxtaposed a airliner, the tower in Toronto …

Ryan Jespersen:

That was crazy.

Raj Sharma:

… and an Arabic aphorism, which was basically a threat. And again, you would have to have the IQ of room temperature not to perceive that as a threat and a reference to the events of 9/11, where the majority of those individuals that perpetrated those attacks were from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Ryan Jespersen:

I think 15 of 19 of the hijackers were Saudi citizens, Saudi nationals. Raj, speaking of that tweet, I’m gonna talk about that with Amir Adoran from the University of Ottawa in just a second, so thank you for your time on this. It’s always nice to have you on the show.

Raj Sharma:

My pleasure.

Ryan Jespersen:

Raj Sharma, immigration lawyer, partner at Stewart, Sharma, Harsanyi. On a different-

Ryan Jespersen:

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