OTTAWA // When it comes to understanding the escalating dispute between Canada and the UAE, one may need to look no further than this week's tour of the Gulf by the country's international trade minister, Peter Van Loan.
Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar were all on his itinerary as he boosted Canadian trade.
However, when Mr Van Loan held a news conference by telephone with Canadian reporters to discuss his trip, he was bombarded with questions about one country conspicuously absent from his tour - the UAE.
For months, the UAE appears to have been a low priority for Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government. Now, Mr Harper's minority government is being asked tough questions at home about how it allowed relations with one of Canada's largest trading partners to founder. Insiders say the dispute that hit the headlines this week has been simmering for months.
The UAE is Canada's largest export market in the region with an estimated C$1.3 billion (Dh4.7bn) in purchases annually, while its exports total $195.4 million. But the UAE could not get Ottawa to budge on its bid for more landing rights in Canada for Emirates Airline and Etihad Airways. Some Canadians, like Ed Stelmach, the premier of the oil-rich western province of Alberta, would like to see direct flights between cities such as Calgary and Dubai. Air Canada worries the two UAE airlines simply want more Canadian landing rights to grab a greater share of the international travel market.
On Sunday, the rift came out in the open when the UAE ambassador to Canada publicly expressed his frustration at the failure of negotiations for more landing slots. The rift widened as Canadian officials said they would likely close Camp Mirage in the UAE after an agreement between the two nations lapsed and a flight carrying Canada's defence minister, Peter MacKay, was denied the right to land at the camp.
Yesterday the dispute escalated further with the revelation by a UAE official that his country actively lobbied against Canada's bid this week for a seat on the United Nations Security Council. The dispute with the UAE, coupled with Canada's failure to win a seat on the Security Council, left opposition critics charging that the government has mishandled Canada's foreign relations.
"The fact that the Harper government has completely bungled this relationship [with the UAE] is just another sign of just how off base they are," said Bob Rae, the critic on foreign affairs for the opposition Liberal Party.
Paul Dewar, the critic on foreign affairs for the New Democratic Party, said what was an irritant a year ago has escalated into a dispute because of the Harper government's attitude towards the UAE.
The UAE Ambassador to Canada, Mohammed Abdullah al Ghafli, has been trying for a year to get a meeting with the foreign affairs minister, Lawrence Cannon, to discuss issues including landing rights and visas, but so far has been unsuccessful.
"It is so obvious that they should be a priority, considering the trade, considering that they have been hosting us at Camp Mirage for almost a decade, you would think that we would bend over backwards to ensure that there was ongoing continual dialogue around any issue," Mr Dewar said. "If you don't, then things go off the rails rather quickly and that is what we have seen in the last couple of days."
Fen Hampson, the director of Carleton University's Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, said both sides bear some blame for the escalation of what is essentially a trade dispute and both sides stand to lose if it cannot be resolved.
While Canada has refused to make significant concessions on landing rights, the UAE's decision to link the trade dispute to Camp Mirage escalated it, he said.
The public opinion pollster, Nik Nanos, said the dispute is unlikely to affect the government's support.
But such events do prompt Canadians to ask questions, he said.
"When things go off the rails, people might not be public policy experts but they wonder whether there is something wrong," Mr Nanos said.