Ottawa moves beyond pro-Israel views in approach to Middle East

AMMAN — The Globe and Mail

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has a cup of coffee with his UAE counterpart, Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, at the Tim Hortons at Abu Dhabi Mall in Abu Dhabi on April 2, 2013. Christopher Pike / The National (Christopher Pike/The National)

“It’s the Hortons!”

John Baird has his coffee at a Tim Hortons in Dubai, and he’s booming about it. He insisted on this stop, as his little convoy with an escort from the United Arab Emirates protocol office rushed him to the airport, and the delay is making the diplomats nervous. “I’m a man of the people,” he says, pointing at the cup and noting that he’s about to get into a $140,000 SUV.

Story continues below ad

A little buzzing from the escort’s sirens, and the convoy makes it in time for him to hustle onto a commercial flight. Mr. Baird is going to Iraq. And his Tim Hortons politics have come to the Middle East.

There’ll be more of it – an Abu Dhabi photo-op with a royal sheik over a double-double that makes his staff glow. But his seventh trip to the Middle East is marking something more. It’s an effort to build relationships with Muslim countries – and not just about trade. He wants to talk about Syria, Iran, extremists and the Sunni-Shia political divide. They do, too.

There’ll be a second leg of his 12-day tour dominated by Israeli-Palestinian issues, starting Saturday, as he visits the West Bank and Israel. But in Jordan, Iraq, the UAE, Qatar and Bahrain, he’s changing the Tory approach.

The Harper government’s Middle East policy has long been seen as revolving solely around support for Israel. Its pro-Israel view hasn’t changed. Ottawa’s interest in regional issues such as Jordan’s stability or Iran’s influence, or fears about extremists that have stopped it from fully backing Syria’s opposition, have an eye to Israel. But Mr. Baird sees an opportunity to build ties with Mideast nations by talking to them about issues at the top of their minds.

Mr. Baird likes to say that when he changed Canada’s United Nations voting pattern to be more pro-Israel in 2011, the bureaucrats in his department warned it would spark an Arab-world trade war, but when he visits Arab counterparts, no one raises it. The Palestinian issue is important here, he says, “but there are other issues.”

There’s trade, of course, but also diplomacy to seek common ground on regional issues. Qatar opposes the Assad regime in Syria, but it’s funding arms for rebels, and Canada is worried arms will go to extremists. So is Iraq. Gulf countries such as Bahrain, which last year repressed protesters from the Shia majority, blame Iran for sowing uprising and remain fearful of its nuclear program – a Harper government target. The UAE, Mr. Baird says, is a “like-minded ally” on many regional issues.

Travelling in a whirlwind with his brash, joking bonhomie, Mr. Baird is being received by kings, prime ministers and foreign ministers. He stresses the importance of striking relationships with other foreign ministers – a friendship with Jordan’s Nasser Judeh, a good rapport with Bahrain’s Sheik Khalid Al Khalifi and a chummy tie to the UAE’s Sheik Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

“You know, our government’s policy on Israel, I’m with it 1,000 per cent,” Mr. Baird says as he’s about to board the flight to Iraq. “But I’m fascinated by the Arab world.”

He opened the trip with some sightseeing in Jordan, in Petra and a desert tent camp in Wadi Rum, visits he says were urged by his “dear friend,” Mr. Judeh. But most of it is racing through airports from capital to capital, to a litany of meetings, opening a pair of new offices, and in Jordan, announcing aid.

In Amman, his meetings with Mr. Judeh and with King Abdullah came at a critical time – and mark a key part of a broadened regional strategy. The 470,000 Syrian refugees who have crossed into Jordan, a country of 6.3 million, are straining the country’s resources and sparking resentment.

The King is concerned about Palestinian issues – half the population are Palestinians who have come since 1948 – and he likely raised the peace process with Mr. Baird. But Canada’s stand is irrelevant to most Jordanians, said veteran Amman journalist Osama Al Sharif, though those who follow it don’t like it. Some Jordanians who were invited to see Mr. Baird open a new embassy building in Amman on Sunday read his pro-Israel comments on Facebook, and didn’t go, Mr. Al Sharif said.

But the influx of Syrian refugees, a weak economy and an Arab Spring of dissent have added to the King’s already-tricky balancing of the divisions between East Bank Jordanians and Palestinians. It makes Israel, and Ottawa, nervous; they see Jordan as a bulwark of stable moderation – and they fear the chaotic prospect of the monarchy’s collapse.

Ottawa has sent money. It has provided $74.5-million for Syrian refugees, mostly to UN organizations – but $24.5-million has gone directly to Jordan, including money for the country’s armed forces to buy equipment.

“We want to do all we can to support Jordan,” Mr. Baird says. It’s not perfect, he says, but relatively open, and constructive with Israelis and Palestinians. “They’re a force for good in the region.”

He points out that Ottawa has long had good relations with Jordan. But in other places on this trip, that hasn’t always been true.

As he donned a flak jacket and stepped into an armoured car at Baghdad’s airport, Mr. Baird became the first Canadian foreign minister to visit Iraq in 37 years.

Iraqis tell him he should have come sooner. They want Canada to open an embassy; instead he’ll open a one-person office – a window on trade and Iraq’s fractious role in regional stability. With MPs, he stresses pluralism between sects and faiths. Ala’a Makki, a Sunni opposition MP, tells him of efforts to build Shia-Sunni political parties, but says the Sunnis’ situation is difficult. “If the Canadian government has influence to help us, we welcome,” he said.

Later, at Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s lush, heavily secured compound, the two, oddly, come to a sort of meeting point on Syria’s civil war. Iraq is heavily influenced by Syria’s ally, Iran; Iraq is being pressed to stop Iranian overflights of arms to the Assad regime in Syria. But Mr. al-Maliki professes no love of the regime, according to a source, but rather concern about extremists among its opponents, who might turn to Iraq next. Mr. Baird tells him Canada, unlike most Western countries, has not recognized the opposition coalition, partly out of the same concerns.

“I think they are very concerned about the role the radicals and extremists play in some parts of the opposition – just as we are,” Mr. Baird says as he rides in an armoured car through Baghdad.

In Abu Dhabi, his reception surprises. The UAE kicked Canadian forces out of a military base over a dispute in 2010 over Emirati airline routes to Canada. But the Foreign Minister, Sheik Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a royal prince in flowing white robes and keffiyeh, comes to a Tim Hortons in Abu Dhabi to share a long coffee in front of photographers. The coup, symbolizing the end of the spat and making Mr. Baird’s handlers smile, is that Sheik Abdullah was willing to play along.

But it goes beyond the photo-op. The UAE will signal it will drop the hefty visa fees it imposed in the dispute. Sheik Abdullah drives Mr. Baird in his own Mini to fly in helicopters to Dubai and the ornate palace of Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Emir of Dubai, the UAE’s Prime Minister. Afterward, Sheik Abdullah takes Mr. Baird for a long restaurant lunch, where they’re seen laughing at each other’s stories.

Of course, Mr. Baird can’t count on buddies in every capital, but he argues that making them is a mission. He says he has a good rapport with Sheik Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, Bahrain’s rotund, Texas-educated foreign minister. He’s looking to build others.

“We have to establish relationships,” he says late at night in Abu Dhabi.

“It’s not a matter of just showing up and asking for something. It’s a matter of building relationships.”

Follow on Twitter: @camrclark