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Alexander Dalziel: Canada must make the Middle East a geopolitical priority once again

Commentary

The atrocities committed by Hamas on October 7 have put the Middle East back on Western nations’ geopolitical agenda with a vengeance. Now the conflict, as the destruction and civilian casualties mount, demands renewed attention of middle powers like Canada to the Middle East.

For Canada’s federal government, the profile of the Middle East had dropped amid the attempt to refocus foreign policy on the Indo-Pacific region and to deal with the threat of Russia in Europe. While the Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza is the spark for a reconsideration of where the Middle East fits in Canada’s global agenda, that spark should also illume the quieter evolution of the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf into multi-dimensional geopolitical and geo-economic actors.

At the Manama Dialogue in Bahrain in mid-November, leaders and experts from across the Middle East and around the world gathered to explore these dynamics. While much of the discussion focused on addressing the Hamas-Israel conflict, the interconnections of the increasingly independently-minded members of the Gulf Cooperation Council—Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—were evident. 

What does their rise mean for a smaller player like Canada? Most geostrategic debate in Canada is framed within the Pacific and Atlantic regions. But they do not exist in isolation. The Middle East’s relevance to world politics is high. It supplies almost half of the world’s oil which makes it essential to global economic stability. 

The region is also poised to diversify its energy portfolio. Though Jasem Albudaiwi, secretary general of the Gulf Cooperation Council, criticized the “misguided narratives that alternative energy sources can replace fossil fuel,” others noted that the Middle East’s natural riches include abundant sunshine and wind.

The amassed wealth of these countries, most notably in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, has turned them into financial hubs and major foreign investors, as well as magnets for immigrants from South Asia and beyond. Qatar, often seen as a disruptor in the region, has also shown itself as a conflict mediator, most recently in conjunction with the United States in negotiating the now-lapsed Israel-Hamas ceasefire.

The region is a factor in Canadian priorities in the Indo-Pacific and Euro-Atlantic. For instance, Iran exports weapons to Russia, notably the drones assaulting Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure and population centres. 

Russia, as part of the OPEC+ format, also influences world energy prices, a key factor in global security, noted Amos Hochstein, U.S. President Joe Biden’s senior energy adviser. Moreover, Russia’s military presence in Syria constrains Israel’s behaviour, giving Hezbollah and Iran more latitude. 

Nonetheless, Russia gained hardly a mention at the Manama Dialogue, a sign of how its ill-judged obsession with Ukraine has weakened its overall position in the Middle East, especially as an effective go-between on regional issues, as was evident over the years of negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. Its flat-out rhetorical embrace of Hamas in the conflict is a sign of that peripheralization. 

The Gulf region is also a factor in the Indo-Pacific. It was striking how little China was talked about at the conference because the region economically has been trending towards increasing ties to the People’s Republic. Oil exports capture the dynamic: China is Saudi Arabia’s biggest oil export market, United Arab Emirates’s second biggest; Oman sends 90 percent of its oil there; China gets one million barrels a day in discounted oil (because of U.S. sanctions) from Iran. And initiatives like the Digital Silk Road have real attraction to the modernization efforts of regional governments, all of which have ambitious national development programs. 

While China remains peripheral, for now, to security and political outcomes in the Middle East, its purchasing power has translated into more sway. Diplomatically, for example, this summer it helped broker a revival of diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran; there are reports that it has leaned on Tehran to tamp down the likelihood of contagion beyond Israel and Hamas. China’s dependence on Middle East energy means it, like the United States, would look unfavourably at any threat to the safe transit of the crucial straits of Hormuz and Bab al-Mandab.

Iran is the animating fear. Beyond the seemingly ever-present threat of it getting a nuclear arsenal, the Gulf kingdoms are unsettled by its asymmetric “forward defence” strategy, in part built on a regional network of violent non-state actors like Hamas, Hezbollah, and Houthi groups in Yemen, and on deep political influence in Syria and Iraq, creating a loop of anxiety around Israel and the Arab kingdoms. 

“No state has been so active, and perhaps as effective, as Iran in regional conflicts in modern times,” notes a 2019 report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. The fact that many of the kingdoms have sizable Shiite populations further unsettles their Sunni royalties, despite Iran’s poor track record in cultivating links to these populations, the report adds.

American and British military officials at the conference described additions to their armed forces in the eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf since October 7 as designed to deter those who might seek to exploit the Israel-Hamas conflict—a reference to Iran and its partners.

Because of the armed threats Iran nourishes around its regional competitors, the Gulf countries retain a strong preference for the United States as their security provider. It is very much a Gulf version of transatlanticism. 

Experts at the conference, however, questioned how effective such military deterrence can be. U.S. National Security Council Middle East envoy Brett McGurk admitted that deterrence in this case was an “inexact” equation. Present or not present, maintaining peace and security in the region is an enormous task. The need for burden-sharing and dividing the labour is apparent.

Anwar Gargash, diplomatic adviser to the president of the United Arab Emirates, denied at the conference that his country’s outreach to the East was hedging—it was economic bridge building, he contended. He then promptly added that hedging was unnecessary, as long as credible U.S. security guarantees were in place. This was evident from the floor as well, where many saw the U.S. as the main external political agent in the region, in particular in the Israel-Hamas conflict, but also as the primary source of regional balance.

But the United States is overstretched. Read the foreign policy strategies of countries from northeast Asia through the Nordics to the Middle East and you will find they share a common thread: the United States underpins their security. In a multi-crisis world, it cannot be everywhere. And its obvious desire to lessen its security and political role in the region, extending across the last three presidential administrations, is a basic factor that disrupts the balance in the region.

Gulf transatlanticism is something Canada can contribute to, adding security dimensions that support grand strategic goals but do not demand great power capacities. The normalization of Canada-Saudi Arabia diplomatic ties, overcoming a spat dating back to 2018, helps to kickstart new opportunities for initiative and creativity. As a fusion point in transatlantic and Indo-Pacific thinking, Canada can explore targeted initiatives in the Middle East to ensure a diversified link speaks to the range of mutual interests.

Military contributions alongside American and British allies to deter Iran would be ideal, but Canada’s armed forces are already spread thin. More sustainable options might centre on joint initiatives for building global energy security around combustion and renewable fuels, enhancing international development in the so-called “Global South” and addressing transnational threats like terrorism, organized crime, and money laundering. Notably, these trajectories would augment a Western lean in their policies, especially in the economic domain, an important aspect of balancing the growing Chinese, Indian, and Russian representation in their trade and investment numbers and political calculations.

Engagement will not be problem-free. These Sunni-ruled kingdoms at times have uncomfortable relations with their large Shiite populations, which hamper the pace of their political development. Sharp disagreements flare up occasionally among the GCC countries, notably with Qatar, which maintains relationships with the Muslim Brotherhood and other anti-status quo political actors that displease other members of the grouping. They compete with one another for prominence and status. 

Moreover, the processes of their foreign policy formulation are something of a black box, given the patchiness of their democratic institutions and accountability mechanisms, which can lead to enigmatic lurches. A well-resourced network of Arabic-speaking diplomats will be a key to developing and managing relationships.

The keenness of these countries to modernize, the affinities that they share with Canada in the prominence of energy and immigration, and their status as small to medium powers generate mutual interests where coordination and cooperation may prove fruitful for responding to global problems and addressing international security. 

As Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly has stated, Canada, which recently joined allies Australia and New Zealand in supporting a call by the UN General Assembly for a ceasefire, finds itself in a period of “geopolitical rebalancing.” Finding “new partners” will be essential. 

That rebalancing will not succeed in the Pacific and Atlantic regions alone. A targeted, savvy Middle East dimension to its policies will go part of the way toward proving that Canada is back.

Rory Gilfillan: Who killed Canadian history? We did

Commentary

To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, the history that we teach is the history that we deserve. Twenty-five years ago, historian Jack Granatstein called it. Writing about the dearth of history in provincial curriculums, Granatstein’s seminal work, Who Killed Canadian History? wasn’t so much a critique as it was a prophecy. 

The most pernicious aspect of our selective memory isn’t what’s redacted but what never sees the light of the day. If you haven’t heard of Captain Gilday and the Black Devils Brigade, or Canada’s first female lawyer, Clara Brett Martin, you’re not alone. It’s a consequence of choices that have persisted and even accelerated since Granatstein issued his prophetic warning a quarter century ago. As he wrote then: “The history omitted is that of the Canadian nation and people.” 

Second World War soldier Tommy Gilday, who was one of those people, likely didn’t carry stickers that said “the worst is yet to come,” helpfully translated into German. But it’s plausible.  

Stuck on the helmets of the enemy his unit killed in the night, the idea was effectively this: become a folktale. Operating first in the Aleutians, then behind the lines in Italy, and finally in Southern France, the First Special Service Force was a new innovation in the art of war. The idea was as simple as it was brutal. Recruit lumberjacks, hunters, skiers, and forest rangers from both sides of the Canadian border. Teach them to leap from airplanes, scale mountains, and fight in close quarters. Teach them to be ruthless and then unleash them on the enemy. A journal taken from a captured German officer gave them the moniker that stuck: The Black Devils.

Gilday grew up in a Canada that most of us would hardly recognize. In the 1920s he taught himself how to ski when ski hills barely existed and equipment was primitive. Later on, he climbed mountains suspended by hemp rope, steel pitons, and guile. Gilday was part of a vanished generation of Canadians who prided themselves on being rugged and self-reliant. When the war came, like most men his age, he enlisted, did his duty without fanfare, was decorated for valour, and went on to live a productive life. He would not have seen his service as extraordinary and in many ways, it wasn’t. This is just what you did.  

Canadians going overseas in the first half of the 20th century would be all but unrecognizable to us now. They weren’t the caricature of Dudley Do-Right. They weren’t self-deprecating and apologetic. Many were inveterate gamblers, some like Gilday were adventurers, others were heavy drinkers prone to brawling, and most of them were not only irreverent but also downright hostile to rigid British class structures. But they were tolerated and welcomed because despite being rough around the edges, Canadians were just the kind of people you could count on. Men good in a fight. Men who wouldn’t back down and above all, men who showed up and stayed for the duration.  

It’s unlikely that Canada was born on the bloody slopes of Vimy Ridge or in the cockpit of a Halifax bomber flying straight and level through flak bursts at twenty thousand feet, but I suspect that Granatstein was right: the stories we tell matter, and the ones we teach to our students (and certainly the ones we don’t) at best generate indifference and at worse encourage self-loathing. 

The decay of the ruddy Canadian that people like Gilday represented is the result not so much of the lack of Canadian history that is taught today but the content which reads more like a 16th-century morality tale rather than a balanced and relentless search for objective truth. The consequences of this ideology are now being reaped. We have repeatedly told a generation that, unlike their great grandparents, they can’t handle anything—and then have recoiled in disgust when it turns out they can’t. We have insisted that, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, our country is bad and then lament the fact that most people can’t be bothered to vote anymore. We’ve been left with what Granatstein characterized (citing the famous 20th-century political scientist Gad Horowitz) as “the masochistic celebration of Canadian nothingness.” 

We hold historical figures to standards that either weren’t available at the time or were part of a worldview that is no longer valid and then judge them to be lacking. Ironically, Clara Brett Martin’s antisemitism may not be so distant after all. I often wonder, what people 150 years in the future will think of our trigger warnings and safe spaces. 

Where Canadians served and sacrificed at home and on the front lines, today we have decided to leave the heavy lifting to others; a notion that would have been repugnant to Gilday’s generation. In the absence of duty to others and the conviction that citizenship comes with obligations, we have chosen to venerate a health-care system that is neither free nor accessible, forsaken a military alliance where we don’t pull our weight, and outfitted our armed forces with sidearms so antiquated that they aren’t merely the same models but literally the same pistols that our forefathers would have carried in the 1930s. It is not without some poetic justice that we now have an identity synonymous with an American-owned franchise that peddles tepid coffee and a multinational corporation that sells watery beer.

I have spent my career telling stories about men like Tommy Gilday, the Canadians who flew the Dam Busters Raids, and the women who worked in the factories and then fought for the vote. These stories reveal intrinsic truths about the human condition and also define what it means to be a Canadian citizen. Canadian history reminds us that people have endured far worse, and squandered much better, and that sometimes in the darkest hour ordinary people are called to do extraordinary things and face impossible odds. Outside of my class, these are not stories that are often told anymore, and as classical scholar Richard Livingston put it: “One is apt to think of moral failure as due to weakness of character: more often it is due to an inadequate ideal.” 

The ideals we have instilled over the last forty years have bred complacency and indifference. Where our grandparents responded to evil with action, we deny its existence, wear rubber bracelets, post on Twitter, mouth platitudes from great a distance, and then wait for others to take our place on the sharp end. Consequently, we have the country that we deserve.

Every fall, I show my students the picture of the man in the crowd; the one man at the Nazi rally who is not saluting. I ask them what would it take to be that man. We all think that we will be the one who will stand up to tyranny. We all think that we will join the resistance and swim against the tide. We all think we will be the hero of the story. And yet, history tells us that most of us will not. 

Isaac Newton once said, “If I have seen further, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.” In Canada, we have cut our giants down and, in the process, answered Granatstein’s question: who killed Canadian history?

We did.