Slammed in media over arms deal, Saudis look to change the channel, but can’t fully avoid the elephant in the room.
Embassy Photo: Sam Garcia
Saudi Ambassador Naif Bin Bandir AlSudairy and Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion on March 24.
Published: Wednesday, 03/30/2016 12:00 am EDT
Meant to be a good news story, the event was held on March 24 to pay tribute to the Canadian government's efforts to aid Syrian refugees. But the Saudi ambassador couldn't avoid the topic every invited journalist wanted to ask him about: a controversial Saudi arms deal with Canada.
The dinner was officially co-hosted by the six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council: Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain. The Saudi embassy and residence compound on Sussex Drive was the venue, and the small group of reporters were promised rare access to Saudi Ambassador Naif Bin Bandir AlSudairy and his Gulf counterparts.
GCC ambassadors had an announcement to make about Syrian refugees, the reporters were told. None of those reporters had seen the inside of the Saudi embassy before. The embassy doesn't tend to send out press releases or have a chummy relationship with Parliamentary Press Gallery reporters.
The press had been brought in to pass along a message to the Canadian people, said Mr. AlSudairy: a “thank you” to the Canadian government for its work resettling Syrian refugees.
The thanks came in the form of a cheque for $31,000 to United Way Ottawa from the GCC countries. The cheque was presented just after 5 p.m. in one of the embassy's stone and glass-walled reception rooms after Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson arrived to take part in the ceremony. The ambassadors stood together against a photo backdrop, chatting while they waited for more guests to arrive as the menagerie of staff, press and press handlers milled about quietly.
Public relations for the event were handled by Navigator Ltd., a communications firm with offices in several Canadian cities that brandishes the slogan, “When you can’t afford to lose.” The firm has earned a reputation for crisis management, working for former Ontario attorney general Michael Bryant after he was involved in a collision that killed a cyclist, and more recently former CBC host Jian Ghomeshi.
However, Navigator had only been hired to help the Saudi embassy with the evening’s event, not any sort of crisis management, said Darryl Konynenbelt, a senior consultant with the firm.
The Gulf states have, fairly or unfairly, been criticized in some corners for their response to the Syrian refugee crisis. It’s difficult to measure resettlement by those countries, since none signed onto the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees. A recent UNHCR report did not list any GCC members as having resettled refugees, but a press release from last week’s event says the Gulf countries have accepted more than two million Syrians over the past five years.
The Saudi government has also fallen under renewed criticism in the Canadian press over its human rights record since the previous Conservative government brokered a deal to send armoured made-in-Canada military vehicles, that could be equipped with guns, to the Saudi national guard, and the new Liberal government upheld that decision. National news sources have run a flurry of news stories and opinion pieces, almost daily at times, tearing into the Gulf kingdom for its treatment of women, dissidents and prisoners. The Globe and Mail has repeatedly reported that the country "ranks among 'the worst of the worst' by Freedom House on human rights." The national newspaper reported the Saudi Embassy responded this month after months of silence, criticizing what it called “sensationalized and politicized” coverage of the $15-billion deal and outside attempts to interfere with internal affairs.
The Saudi government is typically “very, very shy in terms of public diplomacy” in Canada, said Thomas Juneau, a professor of Middle East policy at the University of Ottawa and former Middle East analyst for the Department of National Defence.
The unexpected press event may or may not have been connected to the negative portrayal of the country in connection with the vehicle sale, he said, noting that the Saudi government does support Syrian refugees on “many levels.”
The ambassador said the event was an attempt to show the importance of the Syrian refugee issue, given the large number of Syrians in his country.
The ambassador said the embassy has held such events from time to time. Mr. Juneau said public diplomacy events are held more often by the Saudi embassy in the United States and elsewhere. ...