Canada UAE air flights row continues to simmer

Canada's opposition foreign affairs spokesman leaves the UAE empty-handed following a visit intended to smooth strained relations.

Canada Parliament member Bob Rae gestures while talking with reporters in Arlington, Va., Tuesday, June 8, 2010, regarding his meeting with Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
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DUBAI // A Canadian politician has left the Emirates empty-handed after a visit aimed at smoothing over strained relations between the two countries.

Bob Rae, the foreign affairs spokesman for the opposition Liberal party, spoke with ministers and airline officials in several meetings in Dubai as part of an unofficial tour of the region. The visit comes after a diplomatic row that has been simmering since October, when officials in Ottawa refused to grant daily landing rights to Emirates and Etihad.

Relations reached the boiling point in November, when officials issued an eviction notice to Canadian military personnel based at Camp Mirage, a crucial logistics base outside Dubai that supplied the war effort in Afghanistan. Mr Rae did not anticipate solving the crisis during his visit, which was made at his own expense and without the sanction of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government.

“I didn’t have huge expectations from the trip,” he said. “I simply wanted to hear clearly from the authorities in the UAE as to their views and do what I can to keep things on the rails. It’s in Canada’s best interests to do just that.”

Mr Rae said that there was “deep concern” in the Emirates over comments made by Mr Harper last Friday, where he accused the country of using Camp Mirage as a bargaining chip to secure landing rights for Emirates and Etihad airlines.

“That’s just not how you treat allies and I think it tells us ‘you better pick your friends pretty carefully in the future’,” Mr Harper was quoted as saying by QMI Agency.

“When we as a country offer to be part of a international mission to help protect global security [and] then somebody comes along and uses that to try and leverage demands on our domestic airline industry, I don’t think that’s a situation we as a country want to be in.”

In the interview, he also suggested that both Emirates and Etihad were government subsidised, a claim which has been rejected by both airlines. Tim Clark, president of Emirates, accused Mr Harper of perpetuating a “‘Groundhog Day’ cycle of myths and misrepresentations” and urged him to examine the company’s external audits online.

The statement was likely to stoke simmering tensions between Canada and the Emirates, analysts warned. Some said the diplomatic damage may be permanent.

“These sorts of comments are definitely going to add to the gulf of misunderstanding between the two countries,” said Taufiq Rahim, the managing director of the advisory firm GlobeSight. “I don’t see any restoration in good relations between the UAE and Canada in the near future, if at all.”

That opinion was shared by Sultan al Mansouri, the UAE economy minister, who warned in November that cordial relations had been “destroyed” and complained of “fiery” statements from the Canadian side.

Part of the problem was that Canadian politicians had not considered the culture of diplomacy within the Emirates, said Susan Crotty, an assistant professor at the Dubai School of Government.

“In this part of the world maintaining face is very important,” she said. “For the prime minister to make such inflammatory comments publicly, it is very likely it will be viewed as a serious affront. They are going to take it more seriously than elsewhere in the world.”

Dimitri Soudas, Mr Harper’s spokesman, told QMI that it would be regrettable if Canadian interests were undermined by Mr Rae’s visit, adding that it was “surprising” that the Liberal party had taken the side of the UAE in the dispute.

However, Mr Rae said that he would not let what he called “partisan noise” get in the way of his effort to repair relations, adding that it could take a long time.

"We'll see what happens," he said. "This will be a marathon, not a sprint."