March 1, 2024

A Canadian Oil Ad Vexes the Saudis

Advocates of oil sand production are arguing that the human rights record of Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern oil exporters makes oil sands a more ethical energy source, particularly for the United States.

How successful they will be with Americans remains to be seen. But their argument has clearly caught the attention of the government of Saudi Arabia. Canada’s largest private broadcaster, CTV, has refused to show a television commercial produced by the Ethical Oil Institute, an oil sands advocacy group, after receiving a threat of legal action from a lawyer representing the Saudis. Lawyers for the Saudis have contacted other broadcasters as well in an effort to block the 30-second advertisement.

So far, the main result of the Saudis’ effort has been unexpected publicity for the ad, which had previously been seen only by a relatively small cable television audience, and as a minor diplomatic dispute.

“They’re just not used to being criticized,” Alykhan Velshi, a former Conservative political aide and president of Ethical Oil, said of the Saudi government. “So they immediately reverted to thuggish censorship tactics.”

Neither the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Ottawa nor a lawyer representing the Saudi government on the issue responded to requests for comment.

The advertisement, which seems intended more for an American audience than a Canadian one, lists various well-known restrictions on women in Saudi Arabia. Its images include one of a woman with her mouth taped shut. “Why are we paying their bills and funding their oppression?” the narrator, a woman, asks.

(On Sunday, King Abdullah said that Saudi women would be given the right to vote and allowed to seek elected office. He did not ease the restrictions cited in the television ad: a ban on driving by women, the need for women to obtain a male guardian’s permission to leave the country or work and the discounting of testimony from women in Saudi courts.)

Andrew Crane, a professor of business ethics at the Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto, said that though “the idea that there’s one kind of ethical oil and that it all comes from the tar sands is absurd,” the ad does not misrepresent the nature of women’s issues in Saudi Arabia.

The exact nature of the Saudi government’s complaint is unclear. Mr. Velshi said that a lawyer representing the Saudi government had also declined to describe his client’s concerns to Ethical Oil.

The Canadian government reacted swiftly last week.

“We don’t take kindly to foreign governments threatening directly or indirectly Canadian broadcasters or media for giving voice to freedom of speech,” Jason Kenney, the immigration minister, told reporters. “We think that’s inappropriate.”

CTV, which is a unit of Bell Media, said that after receiving a letter from a lawyer for the Saudi government, it decided not to accept the ad until Ethical Oil resolved the dispute. “Bell Media has no opinion on the content of the ad one way or the other,” it said.

Not all networks took the same approach. The Sun News Network, whose hosts include the author of a book that popularized the ethical oil argument, began showing the ad last Monday.

Shortly before the ad began running, Luc Lavoie, the head of development at Sun News, said that a lawyer for the Saudi Arabian government called him to say that the advertisement contained “falsehoods.” Mr. Lavoie said that he decided to accept the commercial partly because the lawyer declined to offer specifics. He said he would welcome a lawsuit that would require the Saudis to testify “about women’s rights there.”

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