What is the link between Irving Oil, Saudi arms and the war in Yemen?

Written by Abram Lutes on July 3, 2019

The Irving Oil refinery in Saint John is Canada’s largest oil refinery. Photo by Pete Johnston.

“We have a sort of arms for oil arrangement,” says Anthony Fenton, PhD candidate at York University. “Buying oil from Saudi gives leverage in accessing the Saudi arms market, important for Canada’s arms manufacturers.” Saudi Arabia is ruled by the House Al-Saud, the absolute monarchs of the kingdom since its founding in the 1930s and the sole owners of the country’s oil reserves through the company Saudi Aramco.

Saudi Aramco’s largest customer in Canada is Irving Oil. The Saudi oil arrives at the Irving terminal in the Port of Saint John. On average, about 115,000 barrels of Saudi crude oil arrive at the Port per day – 14% of Canada’s oil imports and 5.7% of Canada’s total domestic and foreign supply. The Saudi oil is refined at the Irving Oil refinery; its refined oil accounts for more than 60% of New Brunswick’s total exports.

The Saudi arms deal, valued at CA$15 billion, is for weaponized military vehicles made in Canada called Light Armoured Vechicles (LAVs). The deal has made Canada the second-largest arms dealer in the Middle East and the sixth largest worldwide. Amnesty International has reported that on multiple occasions the Saudi government used Canadian-made LAVs in actions violating international and human rights law. The Saudis have used the LAVs to break up strikes and protests, support ethnic cleansing of the country’s Shi’a minority, and supply the Saudi military’s ongoing war in Yemen.

The LAVs are manufactured in London, Ontario in a factory owned by General Dynamics Land Systems Canada, a facility purchased from General Motors that was previously manufacturing rail infrastructure.  The London LAV factory also subcontracts work to more than 5,000 facilities across the country. The LAVs are transported by rail to the Port of Saint John from where they are shipped to Saudi Arabia.

LAVs being transported by rail to the Port of Saint John. Photo by Joseph Tunney.

The war on Yemen is being prosecuted by a Saudi-led coalition including air and intelligence support from Canada and the U.S. The coalition has completely blockaded the country, including food aid. More than 10 million people are at risk of starving to death and another 10 million are food insecure as a direct result of the coalition’s war tactics.

The purpose of the war is to install an ousted president more friendly to Saudi and western interests. “Canada has a long-time partnership with Saudi Arabia, starting with Pierre Trudeau around the 1980s,” says Fenton. “Canada has said it wants a stable Saudi to advance [Canada’s] interests in the region, as well of those of the United States which we are very tied up in. It’s not just geopolitical connections but personal connections with the ruling family.”

“We really need to build political will to get away from being the northern division of this US-centered militarist economy. I mean, most of these plants are subsidiaries of U.S. companies,” continues Fenton.

Resisting the LAV arms deal

When the Trudeau government was elected in 2015, the Prime Minister was urged to abandon the previous Conservative government’s sale of Canadian-made LAVs to Saudi Arabia. But while Trudeau claimed the government is “looking for a way out” of the agreement, and tensions between the two countries have escalated, Canada continues to fulfill its LAV shipment obligations.

Today, opposition to the arms deal by social movements and activists continues with a petition addressed to Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) President Hassan Yussuff asking the CLC to officially oppose the Canada-Saudi arms deal. The petition was signed by almost 300 academics and human rights organizations in the first four days after it was made available to the public on the website change.org on June 26.

York’s Fenton and Simon Black, Assistant Professor of Labour Studies at Brock University, are co-authors of the petition. Black says ending the arms sales is integral both for the labour movement and for a green energy transition. “International solidarity is the lifeblood of labour…. And I’m sure those workers in London would much rather be building railways as part of a greener infrastructure than these carbon-spewing weapons.”

“We’ve had years of civil society groups and human rights groups lobbying against this deal,” says Black. “The question now is, what is actually going to get the Canadian government to cancel this deal? The answer is, it’s workers!”

Port workers in Genoa, Italy and Marseille, France recently went on strike to prevent the arrival of arms to Saudi Arabia. In December 2018, the NB Media Co-op reported on pickets by labour and peace activists assembled at the Port of Saint John to protest the arrival of the Bahri Yanbu, a Saudi cargo ship scheduled to transport Canadian-made LAVs. The port workers of the International Longshoreman’s Association (ILA) Local 273 refused to cross the picket line.

The Saint John longshoremen have previously refused to ship cargo in solidarity with workers across the world. In 1979, they refused to ship heavy water for the Argentine military dictatorship’s nuclear reactor. In 2003, they refused to ship military equipment destined for Iraq.

Picketers protest Saudi Arms in Saint John in December 2018. Photo by David Frank.

“We’re very grateful to ILA Local 273 for refusing to cross that picket line,” says Black. However, unlike in Italy or France, the ILA received very little solidarity from other Canadian unions. Black hopes the CLC taking an official stance against the deal would change that, because “the CLC has significant resources and it would go a long way if unions could use those to resist these shipments.” Unions in Denmark, Finland, Germany and Norway have successfully pressured their respective governments to suspend transfers of arms to Saudi Arabia.

Abram Lutes is a member of the NB Media Co-op board and an environmental action reporter with the RAVEN project.

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