For the first time in over a quarter century, Saudi Arabia will send a large cultural delegation to Canada toward the end of this month.
On the face of it, the “Saudi Cultural Days” are touted as an effort to strengthen diplomatic ties between Riyadh and the Canadian government.
However, in Canada’s case, there’s something more than friendly relations at stake.
The event’s announcement comes as the Gulf kingdom is in the midst of an arms deal with Canada. The convenient timing suggests Riyadh is launching a charm offensive to hush up any criticism aimed at the controversial arrangement that is worth around $15 billion.
“There's has been no Saudi cultural delegation in Canada for over a quarter century, and this one happens to visit in the midst of Canada’s highly controversial multi-billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia,” Cesar Jaramillo, head of anti-war group Project Ploughshares, told Middle East Eye.
Saudi Arabia has more or less maintained its position as one of the top 10 importers of weapons in the world. But its weapons trade with the West over the past year has been vehemently condemned by human rights advocates across the globe — primarily because of the war in Yemen.
While claiming to fight Shiite Houthi rebels, allegedly backed by Iran, the Saudi military coalition has allegedly committed mass atrocities against Yemeni civilians.
Since March 2015, the oil-rich Gulf kingdom has killed more than 3,000 civilians, using mainly U.K.- and U.S.-made weapons.
Although Canadian Foreign Minister Stepahne Dion has said there’s no evidence if vehicles Canada previously sold to Riyadh were misused, Canadian-made combat vehicles appeared to be embroiled in Yemen earlier in February.
Now, the deal is almost done, that much is clear. It’s just the condemnation from international human rights groups that appears to be the only hurdle. Therefore, many believe it’s the why Saudi Arabia is keen on sending its cultural delegation to Ottawa.
Around 100 folk dancers, singers and other performers will visit the Canadian capital May 18-21 for a four-day series of events meant to promote Saudi culture and traditions, according to Middle East Eye.
Predictably, many in Canada are skeptical and critical, and perhaps rightly so.
“We’re not going to see the executions, the crucifixions, the people flogged for what they wrote on blogs, we’re not going to see women denied the right to drive,” Steven Staples, vice-president of advocacy and research group Rideau Institute, told The Globe And Mail.
“I don’t care how many dancers they bring to Parliament Hill — it’s not going to change Canadians’ views.”