OTTAWA // Canada's decision to grant landing rights to Qatar reflects the growing relationship between the two countries and has nothing to do with the UAE, a Canadian government spokeswoman said.
Canada has quietly negotiated a landing rights agreement with Qatar at the same time as it is refusing to grant additional landing rights to Emirates Airline and Etihad Airways.
The new deal, which has yet to be formally announced in Canada, will provide for three passenger flights a week, as well as three cargo flights. The deal was signed on October 28, three days after the talks began.
Melissa Lantsman, a spokeswoman for the Canadian foreign affairs minister Lawrence Cannon, said the agreement is the result of improving relations between the two countries.
"This agreement responds to the increasing trade, investment and political ties between Canada and Qatar by facilitating transportation and people-to-people contact," she said.
Ms Lantsman said it had nothing to do with Canada's relations with the UAE.
"Canada is constantly in discussions or negotiation on air services arrangements with many countries around the world," she said. "This new air agreement with Qatar is not related to any other negotiations. We must manage a strong international demand for access to the Canadian market."
The news of a new air agreement with Qatar comes as relations between Canada and the UAE have been deteriorating in recent weeks.
The UAE has been trying unsuccessfully to negotiate a deal to allow Emirates and Etihad to expand their service to Canada. Currently, each of the airlines flies three times a week to Toronto but they would like to expand to other cities such as Calgary or Vancouver and increase service to Toronto. They argue existing flights are averaging more than 90 per cent capacity.
The Canadian government argues that the current number of flights responds to the demand for service to the UAE. Opponents of expanding landing rights for Emirates and Etihad say the airlines are seeking more landing rights to win a larger chunk of the lucrative international market and compete with Air Canada and its partners.
This month Canadian armed forces pulled out of Camp Mirage near Dubai after their lease was not renewed in a move that was largely seen as part of the dispute over landing rights.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government came under fire from critics after the revelation that it cost 300 million Canadian dollars (Dh1.09 billion) to close Camp Mirage. Instead of landing in Dubai en route to Afghanistan, military flights will now stop in Cyprus or Germany.
Last week, relations deteriorated further after the UAE announced that after January 2 Canadians will require a visa to enter the Emirates. Canada has long required UAE citizens to obtain a visa to enter Canada.
Ms Lantsman said the move by the UAE was initiated in 2009 and is not related to the dispute over landing rights.
If Canada's relations with the UAE have been deteriorating, its relations with Qatar have been improving. On a recent trade mission to the Middle East, the Canadian international trade minister, Peter Van Loan, visited Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel but skipped the UAE.
While Canada's C$224m in exports to Qatar pale compared to the C$1.3bn it exports to the UAE, the Canadian government expects business to increase.
"Trade relations between Canada and Qatar are expected to expand significantly over the next five years as Qatar's economy continues to grow apace and as Canadian exporters and investors become more familiar with the unparalleled infrastructure-based opportunities it offers," the foreign affairs department says on its website.
"Areas of growth include gas-based industries, construction, health care, education and tourism."
Paul Dewar, an MP and foreign affairs critic for the left-wing New Democratic Party, said the way the deal with Qatar was negotiated showed the Harper government lacked an understanding of diplomacy in the Middle East.
"Qatar and the UAE are competitors on many different fronts and, what we have done is, we have turned our back on the UAE and we've then done a deal with Qatar. The perception is that we're favouring one over the other and as you know, when it comes to diplomacy perception is extremely important."
Instead, the Canadian government should have worked harder to maintain good relations with both countries, Mr Dewar said.