OTTAWA // Canada has "some work to do" to rebuild its relations with the United Arab Emirates following a row over landing rights, the Canadian defence minister said yesterday.
Speaking to reporters just before boarding a flight to Lisbon for a Nato summit, Peter MacKay said events in recent weeks have damaged relations between the two countries.
"My view is that we obviously have some work to do. We have some work to do in repairing the relationship with the United Arab Emirates."
"We have to continue to work to improve relations everywhere and clearly the circumstances under which we left the base require now some work," he added.
Mr MacKay's comments come less than 24 hours after he was overheard telling two colleagues that Canada's decision to deny the UAE additional landing rights in Canada needlessly cost them Camp Mirage, a base near Dubai that the Canadian armed forces had been using to fly troops and supplies in and out of Afghanistan for the past decade.
Mr MacKay suggested it would take 10 years to repair the relationship with the UAE.
According to a reporter present at the time, Mr MacKay was wearing a "Fly Emirates" baseball cap and told his colleagues he was wearing it for the former transport minister John Baird.
There have been reports that it was Mr Baird who opposed granting Emirates and Etihad the additional landing rights they are seeking - a move that led to Canada being forced to leave Camp Mirage.
While closing Camp Mirage has been reported to cost the government US$300 million (Dh1.1 billion), Mr MacKay said the costs have not yet been tallied.
"We'll look at close-out costs when the time is right," he said yesterday.
Canada has relocated operations to Germany and Cyprus, but Mr MacKay did not rule out the possibility of Qatar as a location for a base.
Opposition parties were quick to seize on Mr MacKay's unguarded comments.
"Mr MacKay has confirmed that the government fumbled the diplomatic ball (and) that has set back Canada's strong relations with an important Middle East partner," said Paul Dewar, foreign affairs critic for the left of centre New Democratic Party, said yesterday. "It will also cost us $300 million that could have gone to development and diplomacy in Afghanistan."
The perception that Mr MacKay's overheard comments could embarrass the government and confirm reports of a division within the cabinet fuelled speculation yesterday that his days in Prime Minister Stephen Harper's cabinet could be numbered.
However, Mr MacKay's comments about the need to rebuild relations with the UAE is one of the first positive signals in a relationship that has been deteriorating in recent weeks.
The UAE has been trying unsuccessfully to negotiate a deal to allow the airlines 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.
Opponents argue the existing flights serve the need for service to the UAE and that the UAE airlines are simply trying to grab a bigger share of the lucrative international air travel market.
The dispute, which had been simmering for months, hit the headlines last month after a military plane flying Mr MacKay back from Afghanistan was advised it would not be allowed to land in Dubai.
Canada decided to give up Camp Mirage rather than give the UAE more landing rights.