Diplomacy begins to heal rift between UAE and Canada
On March 4, UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed and Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird braved -6C temperatures to go dogsledding at Château Montebello, a luxury resort north-east of Ottawa. The two got along so well that when they met with officials in the Canadian capital the next day, they announced two agreements and ended a two-year diplomatic spat.
First, they will begin talks on a nuclear cooperation agreement that could lead to Canada being named as a main supplier for four nuclear fuel in the Emirates. They also said they plan to launch a Canada-UAE business council.
"This was very much a testament to just how good the friendship is between the two," said a source close to Mr Baird "Sheikh Abdullah really likes doing outdoor sports. He is very much an athlete and he apparently had always wanted to experience a Canadian winter."
It was Mr Baird who, as transport minister, was behind the refusal to grant requests from Etihad Airways and Emirates Airline for additional landing rights in Canada. Those rights still have not been approved.
The relationship soured so badly that Canadian officials took to using fiery words in discussing the UAE, while the emirates lifted visa waivers on Canadians visiting the country and refused to renew Canadian forces' lease on a logistics base in Dubai usedto supply troops in Afghanistan.
Two years later, Mr Baird is now spearheading Canada's attempt to repair relations with the UAE.
Insiders and observers say that Mr Baird's initiative is sparked in large part by complaints from Canadian business people concerned about the diplomatic impasse between the two countries.
Canada exports an estimated Cdn$1.3 billion (Dh4.8bn) worth of goods and services to the UAE each year, making the UAE its largest trade partner in the Middle East.
"I really think that he recognised that the business community in Canada did not want to see the relationship continuing down the path it had quickly started going down," said the source. "He wanted to do as much as he can to rectify that and put the brakes on the souring of the relationship and get it back on track."
The UAE is also a strategic ally for Canada, the source added.
Fen Hampson, director of the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, said last May's election which returned the prime minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives to power with a majority government likely played a role in the shift but it was not as significant as the business pressure.
"Put a lot of it in the context of minority government, election posturing, standing up for Canada," Mr Hampson said.
Since the election, the government has worked to increase trade with emerging markets, including in the Gulf, he added.
Mr Baird and Sheikh Abdullah got along well when they first met in Istanbul. More bilateral meetings followed, often during other international meetings.
In November, Mr Baird travelled to the UAE at Sheikh Abdullah's invitation.
"During that [trip] the two ministers got to really know each other and they really solidified a good personal relationship," said the source.
Mr Baird reciprocated with an invitation to visit Canada.
The day after the trip to Montebello, Sheikh Abdullah and UAE Economy Minister Sultan Al Mansouri met briefly with Mr Harper.
Meanwhile, the UAE has been doing some quiet lobbying of its own in recent months and hired a Canadian firm that specializes in public relations and government relations to help with its message.
Analysts say it will likely take some time before UAE airlines are granted more landing rights, which was the original cause of the spat.
"I don't care what country you're talking about - landing rights for foreign airlines are always going to be difficult and delicate," said Mr Hampson. "Complicating the situation are the challenges facing Air Canada and concerns that granting Etihad and Emirates more landing rights will further hurt a Canadian airline some believe is struggling.
"Mr Hampson said a key sign will be if the UAE drops the visa requirement it imposed on Canadians a year ago.
"If we can go back to the status quo, that will be a sign that relationships are back on track."
Updated: March 12, 2012 04:00 AM