Diplomacy

Baird trip a bid to build Canada's Mideast ties after Arab Spring

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail

Anti-government protesters celebrate in Tahrir Square after the announcement of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's resignation in Cairo Feb. 11, 2011. A furious wave of protest finally swept Mubarak from power on Friday after 30 years of one-man rule, sparking jubilation on the streets and sending a warning to autocrats across the Arab world and beyond. (DYLAN MARTINEZ/REUTERS)

In a lengthy tour of the Middle East this week, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird will look to boost Canada’s relationship with key governments in the region and address contemporary issues including the civil war in Syria and changes brought on by the Arab Spring.

Mr. Baird sat down with Jordan’s foreign minister on Sunday and will travel this week to the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Cyprus for a series of meetings that appear to be aimed, in part, at promoting a more comprehensive approach to issues in the Middle East.

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The Harper government’s vocal support for Israel has often overshadowed other aspects of its Middle East policy, and Mr. Baird’s trip provides an opportunity to address other concerns, including the conflict in Syria and its threat to regional stability.

Two years of fighting has forced more than a million Syrian refugees to flee for neighbouring countries, including Jordan, where the government says it is under growing economic strain as it tries to provide for their needs.

Aid agencies say they have been overwhelmed by the needs both inside Syria and in the sprawling refugee camps that have sprung up in neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Violence has broken out in some of the camps and Turkey has been accused of deporting hundreds of refugees. The threat to stability in the region is palpable, and Canada is among those concerned that the conflict in Syria could spill across its borders.

On Tuesday, Mr. Baird will travel to the United Arab Emirates, where he is expected to meet with the country’s crown prince and its foreign minister, as well as members of the Abu Dhabi business community. In a nod to Canada’s most famous doughnuts, Mr. Baird is also planning to drop by a Tim Horton’s with the UAE’s foreign minister.

He will visit Doha, Qatar, on Wednesday morning, where he plans to meet with that country’s prime minister. Both the UAE and Qatar are wealthy oil producers and are viewed as playing an influential role in the region.

Mr. Baird will travel to Bahrain on Wednesday afternoon, and then leave for Cyprus the following morning, where he will meet with the country’s president and foreign minister and visit a peacekeeping memorial.

On Saturday morning, Mr. Baird will tour the West Bank and meet with Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas as well as the prime minister and foreign minister. It will be his first time speaking with high-level officials from the Palestinian Authority since last fall, when Mr. Baird vigorously opposed the idea of the Palestinian Authority obtaining observer-state status at the United Nations.

He will also meet with Israeli government representatives, including Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Mr. Baird is not scheduled to visit Iraq on the tour, as Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney did in a surprise 16-hour stop several weeks ago. But in an interview from Amman with CTV’s Question Period, Mr. Baird said he would like to see a greater Canadian diplomatic presence in that country, where Canada has not had an operating embassy since 1991.

“We’re obviously very interested in a closer relationship with the new government in Iraq,” Mr. Baird told CTV. “It’s not just for people-to-people ties, issues like resettlement, but also, it’s a very big energy producer, and obviously Canada shares a lot in common in terms of that economic output.”