The mutual recriminations in the dispute between Canada and the United Arab Emirates harm the national interests of each country. The UAE is wrong to deny Canada access to its airspace because of an unrelated commercial airline dispute. The leadership of both countries should put their stated positions to one side and resolve what has become an unseemly spat.
Canada's proneness to preach free commerce when it suits us, but then throw up protectionist barriers at the first opportunity, has been on full display in this conflict. Three years ago, the Emirates airline started offering three flights a week to Toronto, and for over two years has been asking for more landing slots there and elsewhere in Canada. Etihad Airways also has three weekly flights and wants to expand.
Each has been rebuked, despite a clear statement under Canada's "Blue Sky" policy, proclaimed in November, 2006, that "Canada will proactively pursue opportunities to negotiate more liberalized agreements for international scheduled air transportation that will provide maximum opportunity for passenger and all-cargo services to be added according to market forces."
The case for liberalization is clear. Air Canada is no longer a Crown corporation, and should not be sheltered from the competitive threat represented by the UAE carriers, which would bear the financial risk of expansion themselves. The slots should be granted, or the federal government should work toward a more comprehensive Open Skies agreement with the UAE - consumers would benefit, and Canada would have greater access to a growing market.
And yet the UAE has chosen to link the use of airspace for trade with the use of airspace for security - a dubious proposition. The conflict in Afghanistan and the need to stop al-Qaeda cells from expanding beyond the region are security concerns for the UAE, not just Canada. Allowing Canada to use local UAE airspace and the Camp Mirage logistics facility are not concessions, but, in part, acts of self-preservation by the UAE.
So the UAE's decision to refuse that access, when Canada's two top defence officials needed it for their return journey after using it a week beforehand, is a calculating manoeuvre that will find no favour in Ottawa.
This has not been a textbook negotiation. But if the UAE reverses its short-sighted move, and Canada makes some indication that it is prepared to entertain the airlines' request, both countries, and their populations, will benefit.