This article was originally published in The Mark, Canada's leading online political news magazine. The original link can be found here: http://www.themarknews.com/articles/3659-a-fresh-start-for-canada-and-the-uae
If Canada doesn't rebuild its once-strong relationship with the UAE, we will suffer lasting economic and political consequences.
I often note that Vancouver – where I was born and raised – and Dubai – where I live today – are on opposite ends of the globe. Flying between them is a full-day journey that can easily cost several thousand dollars. For the 25,000 Canadians living in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a direct flight to Vancouver from Dubai and additional flights to other Canadian cities would be a welcome prospect. Yet, after six years of negotiations, Transport Canada refused to alter the agreement on landing rights the two countries signed in 1999, which set in motion the chain of events we witnessed in the last few months, culminating in the closure of a key military facility and new visa requirements for Canadians.
Following the deterioration of what previously appeared to be a strong partnership between the two countries, opposition figures have called on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to reassess his approach, with Liberal MP Dan McTeague being quoted in the Globe and Mail as saying it’s “highly embarrassing.” Conversely, the newspaper from Harper’s own backyard, the Calgary Herald, led instead with the headline, “UAE acting like a spoiled child.” The PM himself seemed unperturbed by the situation in his recent year-end interview on CTV. In reality, the Canadian government’s “new” relationship with the UAE is part and parcel of an inert, insular approach towards the Middle East that ignores both regional dynamics and the fundamental nature of emerging economies. Moreover, without heavy lifting – even if from behind the scenes – the relationship will suffer further and have lasting economic and political consequences for Canada.
Historically, Canada has enjoyed a special relationship with the UAE. Iconic companies such as Fairmont and Bombardier have benefitted from the open nature of the economy. There are thousands of Canadians who have jobs in the UAE, many of them employed by government-linked entities; tens of thousands more use Dubai as a commercial hub to do business in the Middle East. In fact, the UAE is Canada’s largest market for exported goods (i.e. merchandise) in the region. This is not to mention annual investment flows from the UAE to Canada, which are thought to amount to close to $15 billion (unofficial estimates).
Beyond economics, Canada’s presence is much deeper. All things Canadian have strong connotations of quality, such as the Canadian Specialist Hospital in Dubai. The Terry Fox Run is held across several emirates of the UAE, with a legacy going back to the early 1990s. Even Nelly Furtado was in fine form singing to a throng of thousands in Abu Dhabi in November. On the geopolitical level, since the war in Afghanistan commenced in 2001, the Canadian Armed Forces were using – rent-free – a forward-logistics base called Camp Mirage just outside Dubai, and cooperating with the UAE in Afghanistan itself.
The issue of landing rights for the UAE-based carriers Emirates and Etihad was part of a long-standing negotiation; each time the UAE presented a new analysis of the economic benefits of new routes, particularly for Canadian consumers, it was summarily rejected. In retrospect, the Harper government took its relationship with the UAE for granted. In an ideal world, issues would be delinked from one other. Yet, when House Leader John Baird claims hyperbolically that tens of thousands of jobs would be in jeopardy with a few more Emirates routes, it brings to the forefront the full nature of the relationship and who exactly is benefitting.
Overall, a good bilateral relationship has a mix of elements, with both sides giving and taking; in this relationship, however, it became clear that Canada would be the only one doing the taking. Was it petty of the UAE to bar Defence Minister Peter McKay from flying through its airspace? Definitely. But that does not relieve the Harper government of responsibility for irresponsible policy-making. The world has changed. Developed economies such as Canada’s are accustomed to visa-less arrivals, cost-free military bases, and open commercial access in emerging markets. The UAE has simply put the policy of reciprocity on the table.
Unfortunately, the wounds from the last few months are still fresh on both sides. It is difficult to see any dramatic changes in the short term. However, it is vital that practical steps be taken to rebuild a strong relationship between the UAE and Canada in the long term. That means having open channels of communication and seriously considering new flight routes. For Canada, it also means developing a more coherent approach to comprehensive relationships with countries in the Middle East and other emerging areas. It is not enough to trade on the currency of the past and adhere to bygone dynamics of international relations – a lesson learned during Canada’s unsuccessful bid for a UN Security Council seat last year.
The UAE-Canada relationship is one worth saving and strengthening, but it will take a sincere and sustained effort, especially from the Conservative government.