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Justin Trudeau is trying to get Canada out of a multi-billion dollar Saudi arms deal

CNBC logo CNBC 2018-12-17 Natasha Turak

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is trying to pull Canada out of a multi-billion dollar arms deal with the Saudis, he said in an interview aired Sunday.

"We are engaged with the export permits to try and see if there is a way of no longer exporting these vehicles to Saudi Arabia," he told local network CTV, without elaborating. The deal, worth $13 billion, would supply the Saudi military with armored vehicles manufactured by General Dynamics' Canadian division.

His comments represent an evolution in Ottawa's stance toward Saudi Arabia. In March of this year, the prime minister defended the deal for the armored vehicles, saying that honoring the contract, which was made under a previous government, "fully meets our national obligations and Canadian laws."

And in October, Trudeau said that he didn't want to leave Canadians holding a "billion-dollar bill because we're trying to move forward on doing the right thing." He said that losing the deal would cost Canada $1 billion Canadian dollars, or $750 million, but also said that his government could freeze exports for certain weapons if it found they'd been misused. Among the vehicles slated for export, dozens are described as "heavy assault" and equipped with cannons, according to documents obtained by Canadian media.

The potential decision is one that a few other governments have either taken up or are considering in the aftermath of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi . Khashoggi, a U.S. resident frequently critical of the powerful Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was murdered by Saudi government operatives in the Istanbul consulate on October 2. The CIA has concluded the crown prince directed the murder, an allegation Riyadh fiercely denies.

Justin Trudeau © Getty Justin Trudeau

The killing triggered international outrage, and led a number of investors to suspend their work with Riyadh, though still more have so far chosen to carry on business as usual.

It also put renewed spotlight on the Yemen War, where a Saudi-led bombing campaign has contributed to tens of thousands being killed. The UN, which calls Yemen the world's worst humanitarian crisis, says that the Saudi airstrikes are responsible for the majority of civilian deaths.

Trudeau's intended move would follow the decisions of Germany, Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands, all of whom have announced a halt to arms sales to the kingdom. Last August saw a heated spat between Saudi Arabia and Canada after the latter criticized the former's human rights record, resulting in Riyadh handing down a series of diplomatic sanctions on the Canadians and expelling its ambassador in the country.

Saudi Arabia is the planet's largest weapons importer, and its purchases have exploded in size since it began its intervention into Yemen in 2015. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), 17 percent of all its weapons purchases since 1952 reportedly took place in the last three years.

Last week, U.S. Senators voted overwhelmingly to both condemn the Saudi crown prince as complicit in Khashoggi's death, and separately to call for ending U.S. support of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. The U.S. currently provides logistical support, mid-air refueling, targeting training and intelligence to the Saudis.

And as Congress enters into session in January with a Democratic-majority House of Representatives, Riyadh is set to face more opposition than before, despite having a staunch ally in the White House.

Saudi Arabia issued an unusually strong rebuke of the U.S. Senate resolution on Khashoggi Monday, saying it "rejects any interference in its internal affairs, any and all accusations, in any manner, that disrespect its leadership ... And any attempts to undermine its sovereignty or diminish its stature."


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