The deal, announced in February, will see Canada's division of General Dynamics Land Systems build more than $10bn worth of light armoured vehicles (LAVs) and associated equipment for Saudi Arabia. Canadian Minister of International Trade Ed Fast touted the "landmark" contract as a way to benefit hundreds of local supply firms and create thousands of advanced manufacturing jobs, particularly in the populous region of southern Ontario.
But critics contend the Saudi deal represents a dangerous escalation in Canada's willingness to supply military equipment to repressive regimes, and a lack of regard for what impact the equipment could have on the ground – particularly in light of a new report showing Saudi leads the Middle East in military spending.
"Under Canada's own guidelines, this sale should not have gone forward, and in the future similar sales should not go forward," said Kenneth Epps, senior programme officer with Project Ploughshares, a Canadian non-governmental organisation that advocates non-violence. Epps, who has been tracking Canada's global weapons sales for decades, called the Saudi deal unprecedented in scope.
"[We have] concerns about human rights violations that the Saudi regime is known for," Epps told Al Jazeera. "There is a significant risk, based on current and past history in Saudi Arabia, and even specifically the fact that armoured vehicles of this kind were used by Saudi forces to reinforce Bahraini troops when Bahrain was putting down opposition a couple of years ago. The risk is clear."
Under existing guidelines mandated by cabinet, Canada is required to closely control the export of military goods and technology to countries "whose governments have a persistent record of serious violations of the human rights of their citizens", unless it can be shown there is no "reasonable risk" the exported goods may be used against civilians.
Human rights groups have long criticised Saudi Arabia for its harsh treatment of dissidents; in December, a Saudi judge reportedly sentenced activist Omar al-Saeed to 300 lashes and four years in prison for advocating changes to the country's political system. The kingdom's intervention in Bahrain during the Arab Spring, meanwhile, stands as evidence of how foreign-purchased LAVs may be used to stifle dissent both domestically and in neighbouring states.
The February deal – which followed two trade missions by Fast to Saudi Arabia in 2012 and 2013 – was signed through the Canadian Commercial Corporation as a government-to-government contract, with General Dynamics in a separate agreement to fulfil the Canadian government's terms.
While Canada has long supplied Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries with military equipment, the latest deal dwarfs its predecessors: In 2013, the Middle East, as a whole, accounted for about one-fifth of Canada's total exports of military equipment, or about $140m, said Caitlin Workman, a spokesperson for Canada's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development. She acknowledged that Canadian military exports to Saudi Arabia have increased in recent years, with the vast majority of exports being LAVs.
"Saudi Arabia is a priority market under the government's new Global Markets Action Plan," Workman told Al Jazeera, noting about half of Canada's defence industry revenues are attributed to exports. Asked about criticisms that Canada is helping to arm repressive regimes, she responded: "The promotion and protection of human rights is an integral part of Canadian principled foreign policy… We will continue to engage with Saudi Arabia on a range of issues, including regional security and human rights."
The Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to Al Jazeera's multiple requests for comment. Mansour Almarzoqi Albogami, a researcher on Saudi politics at Sciences Po Lyon in France, pointed out that while the United States "has always been the first line of defence" for the kingdom's security, "that is about to change".
"[The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia] is taking that responsibility into its hands," he said. "And KSA needs to build its own defence capacities in order to be able to do that."
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, imports of military equipment by Gulf states increased by 23 percent between 2004 and 2013. Saudi's military budget is now the fourth largest in the world, with the kingdom spending $67bn last year, a 14 percent increase over 2012 – still well below Russia, China and the United States.
The Canadian public remains largely in the dark about the scale of Canada's arms exports to foreign governments, said Wayne Cox, a Queen's University political scientist and a fellow at the school's Centre for International and Defence Policy. This has been the case for many years, he said, even before Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper took office nearly a decade ago – and it has given successive governments considerable latitude to transact business with countries with questionable human rights records.
"In part, this has been the case because all Canadian governments, and especially the Harper Conservatives, know that when it comes to election time, foreign policy issues rarely become election issues," Cox told Al Jazeera. "The irony is, of course, that with the Harper Conservatives they have gone out of their way to justify Canada's participation in missions such as the NATO mission in Afghanistan on humanitarian grounds, so the sale of weapons and training systems to Saudi Arabia stands in stark contrast to much of their own rhetoric."
Canadian MP Paul Dewar, the New Democratic Party's foreign affairs critic, said there should be greater public awareness about foreign arms deals, accusing the ruling Conservatives of attempting to "hide" information on the purchaser in the Saudi contract. General Dynamics did not identify the purchaser in its initial announcement, he said, while the government appeared to include it as an afterthought, tucked into the last paragraph of a press release that emphasised job creation.
"We need greater transparency and accountability when it comes to the international sale of conventional weapons," Dewar told Al Jazeera.