The Canadian government is buying two aircraft for a fleet used by the prime minister from a company controlled by notorious Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, a Breach investigation reveals.
The deal, worth $133 million and made public last week without any disclosure of the Saudi ties, is the latest sign of a stealthy normalization of relations between Ottawa and the Middle Eastern regime.
Hours before U.S. President Joe Biden touched down in Saudi Arabia last week, the Department of National Defence announced they would purchase two used Airbus A330-200 airliners from the International AirFinance Corporation (IAFC), an investment front for the Saudi royal family.
IAFC is controlled by Tharawat, a company central to the family’s business dealings. It is wholly owned by Turki bin Salman, the younger brother of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, who oversees a sprawling and secretive business empire.
The crown prince has presided over executions and crackdowns on dissent in the Kingdom, including ordering the gruesome assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2017.
Wall Street Journal has reported that “in practice, Prince Mohammed controls and benefits from Tharawat’s business.”
The purchases will replace the aging aircraft in the Canadian fleet that includes the VIP plane used to transport the prime minister abroad.
Healing a “fractured” relationship
The sale of the aircraft may be a sign of warming ties, ever since an official spat was sparked in 2018 by then Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland expressing concern about the arrest of Saudi feminist activists.
At the time, Saudi Arabia expelled Canada’s ambassador and suspended new trade and investment with Ottawa.
Trudeau’s government, however, continued to export billions of dollars worth of Light Armoured Vehicles (LAVs) to Saudi Arabia, despite widespread criticism.
In a transition book prepared for incoming Minister of Foreign Affairs Melanie Joly as late as January 2021, the relationship with Saudi Arabia was described as “fractured,” but the Kingdom remained “Canada’s most important two-way trading partner” in the Middle East.
But late last year veteran Canadian diplomat Perry Calderwood was quietly appointed chargé d’affairs in Saudi Arabia, taking the place of the former ambassador.
This year, several Canadian mining and defence companies have appeared at summits and bazaars in Riyadh.
Corporate lobby organizations that promote trade between the countries, largely dormant since 2018, have also restarted activities this summer, including discussions in Saudi Arabia on “emerging business opportunities.”
Saudi Arabia has also appeared to reverse its efforts, initially decreed by the King in 2018, to divest itself of Canadian investments.
In 2020, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, largely controlled by crown prince bin Salman, bought stakes in Canadian energy companies Canadian Natural and Suncor worth several hundred million dollars. It has sold those since but taken comparable stakes in other mining and energy companies.
Dealings with a Saudi “mastermind”
IAFC is controlled by the Saudi prince brothers through a maze of ownership and influence.
It is registered in the Cayman Islands and doesn’t disclose its ownership, but according to reports in the Wall Street Journal and Intelligence Online, it shares its executive and staff with Quantum, a Dubai-based bank that is turn also owned by Tharawat.
Tharawat has investments in real estate, tech, agriculture, military materials and organ transplants and according to the publication Intelligence Online, is suspected of having made huge sums from defense contracts linked to the Saudi war on Yemen.
Tharawat acquired its stake in Quantum in 2014, just two months before the creation of IAFC.
A signing ceremony formalizing the company’s new jet-leasing role and a relationship to European plane giant Airbus was held in London, England, in June 2014 and was hosted by Prince Turki bin Salman.
The following year, Prince Mohammed bin Salman helped “mastermind” a multibillion-dollar deal between Airbus and a state-owned Saudi company, which was worth tens of millions of dollars to his family, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The LinkedIn press release from the Department of National Defence, which makes no reference to Saudi Arabia or the nature of the seller, indicates the planes are the “first two of up to six aircraft” to be replaced.
The planes “will play an integral role in providing air-to-air refueling, strategic airlift, aeromedical evacuations, and strategic Government of Canada personnel transport, including transport of the Prime Minister, Governor General, and others, for decades to come.”
The Department of National Defence has not returned a request from The Breach for comment.