The words are flying across the globe, with the U.A.E. attempting to take to task an arrogant Western nation that speaks of free trade for its own means but doesn’t hold itself up to its own standards.
I have to admit what first comes to my mind is: Thank God it’s not the U.S.
Instead, this diplomatic kerfluffle involves America’s neighbors to the north, Canada. A once, I assume, comfortable relationship has soured rather rapidly and publicly in the last six months or so. First, there was that small matter last August of Emirati officials deciding to ban BlackBerry in the country when RIM said it wouldn’t give the U.A.E. access to its servers. The idea so freaked out global business that even Hillary Clinton weighed in on the disagreement, something the U.S. Secretary of State would rarely do considering it concerns a Canadian company.
The deadline of October 11 came and went and BlackBerrys continued working, much to the relief of those of us who relied on them. Some accommodation was reached, though neither party has divulged the details.
Then, the last few months have brought us l’affaire flight landings. In a nutshell, the U.A.E. wants more slots at Canada’s airports for its carriers, Etihad and Emirates, and had been asking Ottawa for them for five years. Last fall, Canada refused the request, some say, to protect the market share of its flagship carrier, Air Canada, leaving the arrangement at six Toronto flights to be shared between the two U.A.E. carriers.
Almost immediately, the U.A.E. responded retaliated by declining to renew Canada’s lease, and in effect evicting Canadian troops, from the Camp Mirage airbase near Dubai, which had served as a staging point for troops and supplies on their way to Afghanistan. And then, the U.A.E. upped the ante, taking Canada’s special visa status away and requiring Canadian citizens pay as much as $1,000 for short-term visitor visas. (About 30, largely western, countries can get free, automatic visitor visas upon arriving at immigration at any U.A.E. airport.) Of course, those Canadians who choose to fly either Etihad or Emirates can obtain that visa for a reduced rate.
The spat has been playing out in local media here and in Canada. A few days ago, a former national legislator wrote an article in the Ottawa Citizen saying Ottawa needed to get tough with its Emirati counterparts: “Why would I want to drop the gloves in dealing with the U.A.E.? Because I think they’re essentially a bunch of pompous thugs behaving like Canadians need them. We don’t, and somebody should show them they can’t treat us like the second-class citizens they hire to do virtually all the work in their seven fiefdoms.”
He continued: “Canada is a civilized country trying to do two things on the international front: promote its own interests, and create a fairer, more civilized world. There is nothing fair or civilized about the U.A.E., nor are things improving. Foreign workers, mostly from Asia, outnumber privileged citizens by a ratio of about four-to-one, and are notoriously badly treated. This really is a country run by royal thugs, without democracy, free press, free assembly, or any semblance of human rights.”
He closed the article by saying that Canada should only allow the U.A.E. its current landing rights – as well as an existing contract to manage the break bulk terminals at Vancouver’s port – when the Gulf state writes “us a letter within 30 days pledging that nobody connected to the royal families running your totalitarian governments is funding antiwestern terrorists, and we’ll check that out with our intelligence people. And meanwhile, start showing us some respect.”
OK, then. We’re definitely out of the diplomatic sphere on this one now.
The U.A.E. has responded by asking for a formal apology from Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper. And unlike with the BlackBerry ban, the visa fees did go into effect as planned on January 1. This is surely bad news for the roughly 27,000 Canadians who live here and want friends and family to visit.
Considering this is a commercial dispute, the elevation of rhetoric is surprising. Airlines and their home countries commonly engage in protracted battles regarding landing rights but it usually stays out of the geopolitical realm. Now I wonder has each side dug in so deeply that a compromise can no longer be found?