Canadian diplomats in Saudi endured years of low morale, disruptive renovations
Canada's diplomatic outpost in Saudi Arabia is now on the front line of a challenging confrontation between Ottawa and the kingdom.
Andy Blatchford and Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press
Published Thursday, November 1, 2018 3:32PM EDT
OTTAWA -- For years, Canadian diplomats posted in Saudi Arabia have battled low morale, the dust and noise of drawn-out renovations and the challenges of adjusting to life in the conservative kingdom.
And all of this was before Ottawa's relationship with Riyadh began to unravel from the highest levels down.
In August, Saudi Arabia lashed out at Canada after a tweet from Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland called on the regime to immediately release detained human-rights activists.
Riyadh responded by freezing new trade, expelling Canada's ambassador, recalling its own envoy from Ottawa, pulling medical students out of Canadian universities and even cancelling flights to Toronto.
Last month's killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul put new strains on the relationship amid public outrage in Canada over a $15-billion arms deal with the regime. Canada has joined other countries in applying pressure on Riyadh to say what happened to Khashoggi.
Canada's diplomatic outpost there is now on the front line of a challenging confrontation between Ottawa and the kingdom, and diplomats on the ground have been struggling with their working conditions for years.
The troubles are laid out in detail in a 2013 federal report on the state of the mission. High turnover and vacancies in key jobs, problems female staff had working in a country where women's freedoms are sharply limited, and the difficulties diplomats' families faced there all contributed. A major renovation project was about to displace workers and take up some of the limited space in the diplomatic compound with temporary buildings.
Dennis Horak, Canada's recently expelled ambassador, provided an update this week in an interview about diplomatic life in Saudi Arabia. He's served in worse postings, he said, and he believed morale was generally good during his own three-year stint at the top, but "it's a difficult place."
Horak described frustration among embassy staff that federal ministers rarely visited the country. Ministerial visits, while challenging for staff, lift their spirits and show them the government is paying attention to their work overseas, he said.
"It had been a substantial drop from when the Conservatives were there, and (former prime minister Stephen) Harper made a priority over the Middle East at least in terms of visits and their attention," said Horak, who has criticized Freeland for her August tweet demanding the release of the imprisoned activists, which led the irked Saudi regime to expel him.
"And that wasn't the case with this government and certainly not with Saudi Arabia. So that had an impact on morale."
The 2013 federal report on the state of the mission underlined how low morale already was among the 18 diplomats and 40 hired locals.
"They have faced challenges in rebuilding programs and establishing policies following long periods of high turnover and critical staff absences. On a more personal level, many (diplomats) or their family members have had difficulty adapting to the country," said the document, prepared by the Foreign Affairs department.
"The mission operates in a difficult and complex environment that can place significant stress on employees' personal and professional lives. Furthermore, the mission is still recovering from extended periods over the last few years when key management positions were left vacant."
The document said the mission's commercial economic program in Riyadh faced the challenge that women were restricted from attending some events, which forced female trade commissioners to rely on second-hand sources of information. Horak said half his staff were women and strict Saudi laws made their lives particularly difficult. For example, driving arrangements had to be made for them to go places until Saudi Arabia recently allowed women to drive themselves.
The assessment also pointed to the need for the renovations, including work on landscaping, the embassy itself and the ambassador's residence. The noise, dust and increased presence of workers were considered disturbances that would affect consular services.
The report described the construction work as a "major midlife refit project" that would displace staff and be highly disruptive.
"The upcoming property projects and changes listed will represent significant challenges and are expected to prove particularly difficult for the section already under stress," it said.
The job was projected to take about 18 months, until September 2016 -- but it took almost two years longer. Horak said the work on the chancery, which houses the embassy, wrapped up about three months before his departure last August.
Horak said his team had to borrow the British embassy's grounds for events. The renovations kept workers in temporary buildings in different parts of the compound.
"It led to some stove-piping and more cliques than would (normally) be the case. That had an impact on morale as well," Horak said.
The federal government spent nearly $3.8 million on the project last year, according to its recently released public accounts. Overall, Ottawa has spent more than $14 million toward nearly $15 million worth of contracts to modernize the grounds and the buildings.