The recent tensions in relations between Canada and the UAE have shown a new boldness and determination in the way that the Emirates conducts its foreign policy. The country treads cautiously in its relations with big powers, balancing its arms purchasing between France, the UK and the US, and carefully managing relations with Russia and China. Canada, however, has begun to experience a more assertive UAE, ready to stand up for its interests.
At first glance, Canada and the UAE should enjoy perfect relations. Both have sensible governments that try to contribute to good international relations, both are prosperous and both have welcomed to their lands people from many nations who have contributed to their prosperity. The two countries have also co-operated in fighting terrorism and extremism. About 27,000 Canadians live in the UAE and the country is one of Canada's biggest economic partners in the Middle East, with bilateral trade valued at about $1.5 billion a year.
But there is more than meets the eye in the UAE-Canada relationship. One only needs to look at recent history to find the source of the current problems. First there is the commercial feud over more landing rights. At the behest of Canadian aviation companies, Canada refused to increase landing slots for Emirates and Etihad Airlines.
The UAE, according to some pundits, swiftly retaliated by ordering the evacuation of Canada's Camp Mirage, which has been part of a key supply route for Canadian military operations in Afghanistan. (The existence of the base, while never publicly acknowledged, is one of the worst-kept secrets in the region.) The stand-off became more acrimonious after a plane carrying Canada's defence minister, Peter MacKay, had to take a detour when it was returning from Afghanistan since it was denied permission to use UAE airspace.
The second set of tensions between the two nations emerged in the recent dispute over BlackBerry services. The UAE had said it would suspend the service on October 11 unless the BlackBerry's Canadian-based maker, Research in Motion (RIM), brought the devices into compliance with the country's telecommunications laws. It expressed concerns that the smart phone's secure e-mail and instant messaging services could be used by terrorists since security agencies could not intercept the communication. With the UAE's proposal to either suspend BlackBerry services or place BlackBerry servers in the UAE, the two parties reached an agreement days before the ban was to take place.
Finally, relations suffered from a false report in Canada's National Post that Ras Al Khaimah's port is "actually leased by the Iranian government and staffed by Iranian customs". The head of the Canada Border Services Agency's counter-proliferation section, George Webb, told the paper in October of last year: "We found out about it about six months ago. This is just a little hop, skip and a jump over to a significant airstrip. So if they boat [nuclear materials] over, it goes in the plane, it's in Tehran real quick." Then Mr Webb stated: "While nominally in the UAE, the port is controlled by Iran and is situated just across the Gulf from Bandar Abbas, an Iranian city with a naval base and an airport capable of landing large transport planes." This report upset many in both countries because of the untruthful nature of the accusations by a security official, and further worsened relations.
Some have argued that the UAE and Canada should fight trade problems with trade tools; political and security issues should be kept separate and handled through diplomatic channels. Both countries cite their decisions as being within their national interests. But the extent to which Canadian national interests can be threatened by increased landing rights for UAE commercial aircraft is very doubtful. It is the bottom line of Canadian commercial aviation companies that is more likely to be affected - companies that have had few qualms about squashing competition in the past. Now, faced with world-class competition from very successful companies such as Emirates and Etihad, they rush for protection.
This is part of a larger contradiction in the economic policies of many G7 nations. They support free trade when it suits them, while resorting to protectionism every time it doesn't. This trend becomes more acute during an economic downturn. As economic shifts in power caused by globalisation are irreversible, this approach is more likely to be challenged. Canada may have been taken aback by the UAE's response, but the country and its G7 partners should brace themselves for similar responses in the future.
International conventions and organisations such as the WTO have gone a long way to regularise international commerce in both trade and services, but these remain imperfect instruments. They do not necessarily address all contingencies. Some agreements were flawed at their drafting. Some international organisations take years to redress complaints. That is why governments resort to other methods, such as those used by the UAE over the past few weeks with Canada.
For the UAE this tussle has been an opportunity to show a new assertiveness and determination in its foreign policy, which others also must heed.
Dennis Sammut is the executive director of the London Information Network on Conflicts and State-building (LINKS); Theodore Karasik is director of research and development at the Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis (Inegma)