As is so often the case, international media interest in a dispute that seemed to emerge from nowhere, was in reality the closing stage of a 5-year long negotiation between Canada and the UAE over the extension of air landing rights in the former for the latters two principal carriers, Emirates and Etihad. Viewed from afar, Canadas dogged refusal to allow the UAE any extension of its services to Calgary or Vancouver, despite strong support from business leaders in both cities, smelled strongly of old-fashioned economic protectionism. Clearly, fearing for the financial survival of national carrier Air Canada, Stephen Harpers Conservative government was obdurate in refusing to cede any ground to the UAE which, while doubtless cheering his partys core constituency, arguably defies the logic of international economics.
While this might have remained a relatively obscure trade dispute, of interest only to readers of the international financial pages, the UAEs governments seeming loss of patience and its subsequent decision to order Canada out of the Dubai military transit facility at Camp Mirage, blasted the story on to the front page of every Canadian newspaper.
The disagreement over landing rights turned into a diplomatic spat. At the outset, it seemed that the UAE might have overstepped the mark. It is rarely considered appropriate to mix commercial interests with geo-strategic matters. However, on this occasion instead of lambasting a far off Arab government, the Canadian media rounded on Prime Minister Harper and broadly accused him of jeopardising the safety of Canadian soldiers through his governments intransigence over the matter of a few air-landing rights.
This strange political saga was subsequently compounded by Canadas failure to secure one of the non-permanent seats in the election for the UN Security Council. The UAE government refused to support Canada and it seems that other Arab states were swayed to follow suit. While a few critics accused the UAE of actively lobbying against Canadas application, the Canadian media interpreted this as yet another failure for Stephen Harpers leadership and a further sign that Canada has lost its international stature during his period of office.
The final shot that echoed through a few anecdotal accounts of the fate of some Canadians attempting to visit the UAE was the UAEs imposition of standard rate visa charges that Canadians had never before faced. While business visitors rather quickly adjusted to this, tourists were nonplused. The differential lower visa rates charged to persons who flew the UAE airlines versus those applying directly to UAE consulates added irritation.
This whole ensemble of economic and geo-strategic disputes between the UAE and Canada, seems born out of the Canadian governments failure to understand the growing influence of the Arab world in international politics. Canada cannot continue to treat the Gulf states as distant emerging economies of little international consequence. While Canada retains its place amongst the G20 nations, its electorate seems well aware that countries such as the UAE are developing fast and may supplant the old world that Canada inhabits in the not too distant future. Arguably, the UAE has prevailed over Canada. It signals a changing world and one in which it may no longer possible or appropriate to separate strategic issues from economics.
AT 24 May 2011