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CALGARY . Is Saudi Arabia losing its cool over Canada’s growing oil sands? It certainly seems that way, based on the Middle East kingdom’s bizarre overreaction to television commercials that promote Canada’s “ethical oil,” in contrast to oil coming from Saudi Arabia, a regime that oppresses women.
The commercials are sponsored by a tiny grassroots organization based in Toronto, EthicalOil.org, which encourages consumers to favour “ethical” oil from Canada over “conflict” oil that comes from undemocratic regimes, where most of the world’s oil reserves are located.
EthicalOil.org ran the commercials on the Oprah Winfrey Network in Canada in late August. The Saudis responded by hiring lawyers to tell the Television Bureau of Canada, the advertising review and clearance service funded by Canada’s private broadcasters, to withdraw approval of the ads.
The group was so outraged by the Saudis’ “intimidation tactics” it started running the commercials again this week on the Sun News Network and was planning to run them on CTV, until the network backed out, said Alykhan Velshi, executive director of EthicalOil.org.
In an emailed statement, CTV’s director of communications, Matthew Garrow, confirmed CTV News Channel received an order for an ad from Ethical Oil: “As the ad in question is the subject of a legal dispute between Ethical Oil and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, at the advisement of our legal department we will not accept the order until the matter is resolved,” the statement says.
The Saudis’ pressure went further. The Saudi government also approached Canada’s oil industry to express its concerns over the ethical oil campaign, just in case it had a role in it, industry sources confirmed.
It doesn’t. The oil sands industry’s communications strategy has focused on talking up its efforts to address oil sands challenges, rather than criticizing competing energy sources, since it believes all will be needed in the future to meet growing energy demand. Still, the unprecedented approach from the Saudi embassy raised eyebrows. Saudi engagement with Canada’s oil community has been minimal, ranging from visits to the oil sands to sponsorship of CO2 carbon capture and storage research at the Weyburn oil project in Saskatchewan.
The country’s heavy handedness seems out of character and shows a lack of appreciation for Canadian values such as freedom of speech. It also shows a lack of appreciation for how the world sees its archaic treatment of women – a treatment that is unworthy of its place in the Middle East and its leadership in the world of oil.
It’s an indication the oil sands are getting under its skin. Not long ago, the Saudis downplayed Canada’s unconventional oil as its poor cousin – as hard to produce and costly next to its deposits, which it could produce for $2 a barrel.
But they underestimated Canada’s resolve to grow market share in the United States, largely at the Saudis’ expense, diminishing their influence over a country they counted on for military and political support.
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