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Foreign Affairs Miniser John Baird speaks in the House of Commons on Nov. 16, 2011 (Adrian Wyld/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
Foreign Affairs Miniser John Baird speaks in the House of Commons on Nov. 16, 2011 (Adrian Wyld/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Pro-Israel stand complicates Baird's Persian Gulf jaunt Add to ...

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird faces some major diplomatic fence-mending when he kicks off a two-day Persian Gulf trip this week in the United Arab Emirates.

The elephant in the room at a pair of closed-door policy forums in the UAE and Kuwait will be the Harper government's unwavering support of Israel. The Gulf states are steadfast supporters of the Palestinian cause, and are keenly aware that Canada's Conservative government is not.

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Mr. Baird will also be trying to rebuild fractured relations with the UAE after last year's high-profile dispute between the two countries over airline landing rights led to Canada being kicked out of a Dubai military base.

Camp Mirage was Canada's major staging ground for the Afghanistan mission but the UAE served an eviction notice because Canada wouldn't grant two of its airlines extra landing rights in Canada. The UAE later imposed an expensive travel visa on Canadians.

Emirates Airlines and Etihad Airways wanted to expand flights to western Canadian cities beyond their three per week to Toronto, but Canada said no.

Mr. Baird, who was then transport minister, led a strong defence of Air Canada at cabinet, arguing that allowing UAE carriers greater access to Canada's airports could cost it tens of thousands of jobs.

When Mr. Baird became Foreign Affairs Minister this past spring, a briefing note arrived on his desk that informed him of “the downturn” in bilateral relations between the two countries.

The memo, obtained by The Canadian Press, reminded Mr. Baird that Canada and the UAE were partners in Afghanistan and Libya, where it had dispatched 12 of its own jet fighters to enforce the United Nations no-fly zone along with Canada's seven CF-18 war planes.

Relations between Canada and the UAE have been improving in recent months.

Mr. Baird met the Emirati ambassador in July, something his predecessor, Lawrence Cannon, never got around to doing in his two and half years in the portfolio.

“Canada values the direct air services provided by UAE’s two airlines. We continue to monitor this and other markets to ensure they are not underserved. Canada would be prepared to review the existing air agreement when developments in the market warrant,” an aide to Mr. Baird said.

Mr. Baird met his Emirati counterpart Sheikh Abdullah in New York two months ago, and that's when he extended an invitation to the Sir Bani Yas Forum in Abu Dhabi this week.

The second annual gathering at a posh desert resort is being held behind closed doors, and has a password-protected website that keeps its guest list and program out of the public view.

“The goal of this initiative is to create an exclusive atmosphere for action-oriented discussion among policy and decision-makers, as well as selected key business leaders about the critical challenges for peace and security in the region,” a statement from the UAE foreign ministry says.

Canadian relations with Kuwait are noticeably stronger. Last summer, Canada inked a deal with Kuwait to operate a new military base in the Persian Gulf to support its operations in Afghanistan.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper hosted his Kuwait's counterpart, Sheikh Nasser Al-Mohammed Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, on Parliament Hill two months ago and thanked him for helping Canada find a new Gulf air base. He also announced the two countries were seeking an expanded airline agreement.

While relations with Kuwait don't appear to be strained, Mr. Baird will be attending the 8th Forum of the Future, a ministerial-level meeting of the G8 and Middle East and North African countries, where he may encounter a bitter aftertaste.

At last year's 7th Forum for the Future in the neighbouring Gulf state of Qatar, Canada was publicly blamed for the failure of the meeting to come up with a joint declaration.

Qatar's state-run news agency said at the time that Canada objected to a paragraph on the Palestinian issue.

As Mr. Baird arrives in the Gulf, Canada's unwavering solidarity with Israel remains intact. It's been reaffirmed a number of times since the Tories won their majority government in the spring.

Mr. Harper and his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu expressed unabashed friendship for each other at a meeting at the United Nations in September.

In his speech to the General Assembly days later, Mr. Baird lambasted opponents of Israel as being no better than pre-Second World War appeasers that allowed fascism and communism to flourish.

“Canada will not accept or stay silent while the Jewish state is attacked for defending its territory and its citizens,” Mr. Baird said in the speech.

“The Second World War taught us all the tragic price of ‘going along’ just to ‘get along.’”

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