The ongoing dispute between the UAE and Canada over flight routes is about more than simply space at airports. Yes, the UAE wants more than the six flights a week it is currently permitted to Canada; the Canadians want their domestic carriers to keep as many routes as they can. The dispute has demonstrated a larger point: the UAE has shown an improved ability and willingness to stand up for its economic interests. This should serve as a lesson for its trade partners beyond Canada and in sectors beyond aviation.
While the UAE is known for a moderate and considered approach to diplomacy, that does not mean that the nation should not take a strong stand when it is required. As the UAE has become a global hub for air travel and boasts two of the world's leading airlines, its economy is harmed when its airlines are not allowed to compete freely. This provided the context for the unusually strong words from the UAE ambassador to Canada yesterday. Mohammed Abdullah al Ghafli said that the UAE is "disappointed that despite intensive negotiations over the last five years", no progress had been made. This "undoubtedly affects the bilateral relationship", he added.
Protectionism over landing rights is a continuing concern for the UAE and unlikely to become less of an issue. Many governments are adopting policies to safeguard their national carriers in response to the rise of airlines that provide superior service, such as Etihad and Emirates. It is important that the UAE set a precedent that it will not take protectionism lightly. Other nations should be put on notice. France, for instance, has repeatedly rejected requests for more landing slots in Paris for Emirates Airline, giving preference to its own carriers. Germany's government follows a similar course to protect Lufthansa. These policies are particularly baffling when the UAE has in no small part kept Airbus and the European aviation industry afloat with its orders for new aircraft.
Canada's protectionism clearly comes at a high price to the UAE; the nation has a right to do more than bristle and may need a stronger set of tools to change the Canadian position. The UAE is continually told to open up its borders and its businesses: other governments must now reciprocate.