Image credit: Office of the Prime Minister
By Dr. Jeremy Wildeman
This article is published as part of IPD’s project and policy paper series, Deconstructing the Changing Middle East Security Architecture.
The Middle East plays a critical part in international politics and the global economy. This makes it naturally important for Canada and millions of Canadians who have ties to the region. Yet, Canada is criticized today for not having a coherent Middle East policy that adequately reflects the realities of the region or defines a long-term strategy to protect and advance its interests in this part of the world. This article offers recommendations on how to address such a deficit by first reviewing Canada’s historical engagement with the Middle East, particularly its effective role in influencing regional events during the Cold War and in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union. The article then examines a precipitous decline that takes place in Canada’s regional influence and standing in the mid-2000s during the US-led war on terror. Ultimately, it argues that, in light of the current geopolitical environment in the Middle East, Canada needs to review and renew its Middle East engagement strategy. To this end, the article concludes by offering a list of policy recommendations that could upgrade Canada’s regional standing and its ability to pursue its interests in the Middle East. It contends that part of doing this will come from reviewing and learning from Canada’s past practices and approaching the region as a fair-minded actor with an aim of contributing to its peace, security and prosperity.
The Middle East is a region of great cultural, religious, and geostrategic importance. It is an axis of global transit and trade, accounting for nearly half of the world’s oil and gas reserves. This has turned the region into an important theatre for Great Power rivalry both historically and in current times. It is also a rich and dynamic region that Canada has significant and growing demographic ties to, through large communities of first and second-generation Canadians of Middle Eastern descent, who maintain a strong connection to the region. Yet, Canada has long missed the opportunity to utilize this unique national characteristic in advancing the country’s interest and engagement with the region. It is important to note that this missed opportunity stems from an ill-defined Middle East policy that itself is a product of a lack of overarching foreign policy strategy, vision, and sober understanding of what Canadian priorities are in this strategic region. At best, Canadian Middle East engagement can be seen as an extension of the United States’ regional strategy, haphazardly working around its edges with a series of discordant policies, actions, and programming. Yet, Canada has at times had an important impact on the region, and some of these actions have even contributed to the development of Canada’s national identity and influence on the international stage. The Middle East has, in turn, had an ongoing impact on Canadian politics and society as well.
Canada and the Middle East in the Cold War
Canadians played a key diplomatic role in the 1947 United Nations decision to partition Palestine and create the State of Israel. This came at the end of British Imperial rule during the onset of the Cold War, while global decolonization got underway. The establishment of Israel fundamentally changed the composure of the Middle East and was met with hostility by most countries in the region, who considered the UN decision unjust. For the European states that still dominated global politics, Canada’s role contributed to the perception that it was an effective middle power actor, stepping further out of Britain’s shadow on the world stage. The establishment of Israel also led Canada to have its only close regional friend since.
In 1956, Canada helped de-escalate the Suez Canal Crisis caused by Britain and France’s invasion of Egypt. Only recently independent from British colonial rule, the invasion threatened to reverse Egypt’s hard-fought freedom. The invasion was deeply unpopular in a world where decolonization had taken hold, with even the Soviet Union and the United States threatening retaliation if the aggressors did not withdraw. This caused a real crisis for Canada, which considered the Transatlantic UK-US alliance a linchpin in its foreign policy. Consequently, Canada stepped in and, with the UN, devised a plan to create and send peacekeepers to the Middle East. This helped Britain and France save face and retreat while Egypt would remain independent. This Canadian-led diplomatic initiative later became a national milestone in Canadian foreign policy with Canada’s Secretary of State for External Affairs Lester B Pearson winning a Nobel Peace Prize for his diplomatic efforts in peacefully resolving the Suez Canal Crisis. This also secured global recognition for Canada as an independent peacemaker in the post-colonial era.
This marked the Golden Age of Canadian foreign policy, an era which would have a lasting impact on how Canadians perceive themselves on the world stage as a progressive, liberal internationalist, peacemaker nation. Canada’s actions in the Suez Crisis were indeed oriented in pursuit of its national interest, by supporting its oldest (UK) and newest (US) benefactors by helping extricate them from conflict. However, Canadian leadership was also cognisant of profound changes taking place in the world. They realized Europeans would no longer dominate the power politics like before and recognized the threat decolonization represented to Western interests in their struggle with Communism, if not accepted and respected.
Canada thus adopted a strategic function in the Western Camp, engaging in sophisticated diplomacy on behalf of itself and its allies, reaching out and fostering good relations in the Global South. Canada’s significant contributions to UN peacekeeping missions coupled with a general aversion to armed intervention only enhanced its image, contributing to a façade of benign neutrality that contrasted with the historical imperialism of other Western powers. This provided Canada with soft power prestige that well exceeded its hard power capacities. Canada’s position only benefitted further when, in the 1970s, the country started to depart from its own colonial past, by embracing multiculturalism and welcoming immigration from all over the world.
Canada and the Middle East Peace Process
Canada had its missteps. In 1979, a newly elected minority Progressive Conservative (PC) government, led by Joe Clark, was engulfed in crisis the moment it came to power, over a campaign pledge to relocate Canada’s Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Canada’s generally good international image had already suffered in the Arab world over its perceived closeness to Israel. The PC pledge took place twelve years after Israel seized and occupied the remaining regions of Palestinian land, the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT), in the 1967 Six Day War; and just six years after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war led to a 1973 Arab-led OPEC oil embargo of countries, like Canada, for their perceived support of Israel. The embargo caused significant economic turmoil in the West while the Arab States in the Gulf region emerged as global influencers, forcing the US to pay closer heed to Arab views. By contrast, Clark’s PCs made a campaign promise completely oblivious to the aspirations of the Arab world, and the diplomatic response was swift with Arab states threatening Canadian national interests, economic well-being, and Canada’s hard-earned diplomatic standing.
The embassy affair raised early doubts about the Clark government’s competence. Though losing power after just nine months, the Clark government commissioned an important report that would propose a new Canadian Middle East policy. Clark in 1979 tapped former PC leader Robert L Stanfield as a Special Representative to travel to the Middle East to ascertain how Canada could improve its image in the region. Stanfield’s immediate interim recommendation was for Canada to put on hold any plans to move its embassy. Broadly, he found consensus across the region against Israeli occupation of the OPT and concerns for the plight of the Palestinians. Stanfield’s 1980 final report included recommendations that Canada take a more fair-minded approach respecting all the peoples of the Middle East, and that Canada should foster peace and development in a region where scarce resources had been wastefully diverted toward military expenditures. Writing in 1985, Tareq Ismael described the document as unique because, “for the first time, the Canadian public had a direct input into Canada’s Middle East policy, Canadian foreign policy-makers were forced to address the real issues in the area and to frame Canadian policy in terms of national interest.”
Stanfield’s recommendations were shelved when Pierre Elliott Trudeau and the Liberal Party returned to power in 1980. Yet, the spirit of the report lived on and by the early 1990s crept into Canada’s Middle East policy. This happened at the same time that public opinion was changing, such that Canadians were exhibiting concern not only for Israel but also for the Palestinians. This also happened after a 1985 Senate Report suggested Canada take a more nuanced and less partisan approach to Middle East politics, and the US became focused on building an enduring peace in the Middle East. By taking a more fair-minded diplomatic approach, even voting at the UN on resolutions considered sympathetic to Palestinian self-determination, Canada was able to improve its diplomatic standing to a point where it could take a leadership role on the most sensitive issues of the US-led Middle East Peace Process between Israelis and Palestinians. This bolstered Canada’s diplomatic standing among its Western allies and the international community. Broadly, Canada was well appreciated in the region for its efforts. This marked the height of Canada’s ability to engage as a global actor in the Middle East.
Canada’s Middle East Foreign Policy Today
Canada’s approach to the Middle East changed after the 9/11 terror attacks, and especially from 2004 onward, becoming progressively more securitized and more divisive through successive Liberal and Conservative governments. This included new diplomatic rows with Gulf Arab powers like the UAE in 2010 over landing rights at Canadian airports, and Saudi Arabia in 2018 over mild tweets in support of Saudi civil rights activists. Along the way, Canada dropped the façade of neutrality and any semblance of fair-mindedness. It now regularly votes with a handful of countries against resolutions sympathetic to Palestinians at the UN, staking out pro-Israel positions deemed unpopular in the region. It has adopted some of the more hawkish policy positions toward countries considered unfriendly to Western interests, like Syria and Iran, castigating and sanctioning them over their human rights records while clearly overlooking violations by friendly powers such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Far from a peacemaker, Canada has become more invested in furthering its political and economic interests, even if that means selling military equipment to countries like Saudi Arabia that have reportedly used such equipment to crush protesters in their war in Yemen.
Canada is also an active member of the Global Coalition Against Daesh that helped reverse the growth of the Islamic State. Canada was involved in the disastrous 2011 Libya intervention, which led to the collapse of the state and harmed African regional stability. Meanwhile, it is noteworthy to mention that Canada has in recent years been an active donor providing billions of dollars of regional humanitarian and development aid to key partners like Jordan and Iraq for various projects related to security and stabilization enhancement, refugee protection and gender-based violence, among others.
At home, the securitization of Arabs and Muslims has contributed to harmful Islamophobia across the nation with high-profile racist attacks and the mass killings of Muslims in Canada. Meanwhile, Canada’s diplomatic standing has declined to the point where it seems unable to secure a seat it was once a lock to win on the UN Security Council. While being far from fair-minded, it has simultaneously pontificated about its foreign policy being values-driven, engendering ill will over its perceived double standards in the process. This approach even motivated some Canadian civil society organizations to campaign against Canada’s 2020 UN Security Council bid.
A Path Forward
The absence of a strategic vision toward the Middle East is harmful to Canadian interests at home and abroad. It renders Canada ineffective as a mid-sized power active in the world from within the Western alliance system, contributing in the process to the decline of Canada’s once out-sized ability to influence world affairs and pursue its national interests. While a wholesale rethinking of Canada’s overall foreign policy is long overdue, there are some immediate changes Canada can pursue to improve its standing and engagement in the Middle East.
1. Canada undermines its diplomatic standing when it appears to have blatant double standards in its policy positions such as the support for human rights. One option is to back away from its rights-based language and values projection. However, we know that Canadians expect their governments to promote human rights abroad. Therefore, a better solution for Canada is to be consistent in its support for human rights and applications of its values, regardless if a perpetrator is a friend or foe.
2. If Canada expects states to respect a rules-based order governed by international law, it needs to be consistent in its application. That is, no rules-based order that Canada purports to support can survive long-term unless that order and its supporters are considered fair in its application and international law neutral by nature.
3. Canada needs skilled personnel with diverse and alternative viewpoints that challenge prevailing orthodoxies about the Middle East. This will allow Ottawa to craft contextually accurate and responsive foreign policy positions while avoiding the pitfalls of groupthink among the policymakers in the government.
4. Canada is an incredibly diverse country with millions of citizens who have personal ties to the Middle East. The government needs to find ways to navigate a plethora of diverse community groups’ views on the Middle East, in a way that is coherent and consistent and serves Canadians’ broader interests. Adopting support for just some groups’ interests at the expense of others sows division and harms Canada’s interests.
5. Stanfield’s 1980 advice stands today that Canada’s ultimate goal should be to encourage moderation and conciliation, with the objective goal of justice and reconciliation in the Middle East.
6. Canada can look to its past for inspiration for more nuanced positions that allowed it to better pursue its interests, while still supporting its Western allies and regional friends.
Canada and Canadians’ interests lie in a secure and stable Middle East guaranteed by regional peace and prosperity. Canada needs a structured and contextually appropriate Middle East strategy that speaks to a broader foreign policy vision. In the meantime, there are steps it can take to improve its standing and influence in the region while commensurate with its limitations as a mid-sized actor. That includes drawing lessons from its past when it enjoyed influence in the Middle East. This will become increasingly essential in a multipolar world where even the seemingly closest Western partners in the region are building closer ties to competing powers like Russia and China.
Jeremy Wildeman (@jeremywildeman) (PhD – Exeter) is a Fellow at the Human Rights Research and Education Centre at the University of Ottawa and the Centre for the Study of Democracy and Diversity at Queen’s University. He is a lecturer and researcher of Middle East politics, a scholar of Canada and the Middle East, and an adjunct professor at Carleton University.
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 Newport, 134; Husseini, 46.
 John W. Holmes, The Shaping of Peace: Canada and the Search for World Order, 1943-1957, vol. II (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982), 63.
 Asa McKercher, ‘The Centre Cannot Hold: Canada, Colonialism and the “Afro-Asian Bloc” at the United Nations, 1960–62’, The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 42, no. 2 (2014): 329–49. The Communist bloc was typically ready to support former and existing colonies in their resistance to Europe’s dying colonial Empires and to encourage rejection of the West.
 Charles Flicker, ‘Next Year in Jerusalem: Joe Clark and the Jerusalem Embassy Affair’, International Journal 58, no. 1 (2002): 115–38.
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 Robert L Stanfield, ‘Final Report of the Special Representative of the Government of Canada Respecting the Middle East and North Africa’ (Global Affairs Canada Digital Library, 1980).
 Ibid, 2-3.
 Ismael, ‘Canadian Foreign Policy in the Arab World: An Overview’, 17–18.
 Arab Studies Quarterly, ‘Attitudes of Canadians toward the Middle East Conflict: Highlights of a National Survey, January 1983’, Arab Studies Quarterly 5, no. 3 (1983): 292–96; Gallup Canada, ‘Canadian Gallup Poll, February 1988, #530_1’ (Scholars Portal Dataverse, 11 October 2019).
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 Marie-Joëlle Zahar, ‘Talking One Talk, Walking Another: Norm Entrepreneurship and Canada’s Foreign Policy in the Middle East’, in Canada and the Middle East in Theory and Practice, ed. Paul Heinbecker and Bessma Momani (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2007), 45–72.
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 Such principled guidance has precedent. For instance, in 1980 Robert L Stanfield advised that to foster peace between Arabs and Israelis, Canada should be prepared to express its disapproval when actions are taken by one or other of the parties that are counterproductive to the peace process. That is, if Canada is to have respect, it must avoid total identification with one party when there is also a case on the other side of the question. Stanfield, ‘Stanfield Report’, 15.
 Statistics Canada, ‘Canada in 2041: A Larger, More Diverse Population with Greater Differences between Regions’, Government of Canada, The Daily (2022), https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/220908/dq220908a-eng.htm.
 Stanfield, ‘Stanfield Report’, 15.
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