Ottawa is pushing for warmer ties with the United Arab Emirates in an effort to boost trade and security relations with a country it sees as a key partner in the Middle East.
The federal government hosted UAE Foreign Minister Sheik Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan this week for a tour across Canada that included a stop at the Calgary Stampede and meetings with the premiers of Alberta and British Columbia. A joint statement from Sheik Abdullah and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said the two countries used the visit to sign a memorandum of understanding on political consultation and to launch negotiations on a foreign investment protection plan.
The UAE is considered one of Canada's top investment and trade priorities, and meetings in Calgary, Vancouver and Toronto were dominated by trade, energy and security issues, a government official said.
Matteo Legrenzi, who teaches international relations at the University of Venice, said the Canadian government has put a significant effort into building its relationship with the UAE in recent years. "In general, the gravity in the Arab world is shifting toward the Gulf," he said. "These are places where Canada can do business in the foreseeable future."
Prof. Legrenzi, who is also an adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa, said the UAE is particularly keen for Canada's support on defence. "What they're really trying to do is to internationalize the issue of security in the Persian Gulf. They don't want security in the Persian Gulf to be their problem, they want to make it an international issue. So the more stakeholders they have, the better."
For its part, Canada is interested in greater intelligence co-operation with the UAE, he said. Sheik Abdullah participated in a discussion on international security at the Munk School of Global Affairs in Toronto on Wednesday.
However, Prof. Legrenzi warned that Abu Dhabi's crackdown on internal dissent, which began during the Arab Spring uprisings in the region, could cloud an otherwise close relationship between the two countries.
During the Sheik's visit, the UAE opened a consulate-general in Toronto, which the Canadian government said is aimed at linking the city with the Gulf state's business community. In addition, Mr. Baird and Sheik Abdullah said they would work toward an agreement on financial and technical co-operation and hold talks on energy security and infrastructure development.
Two other UAE ministers are also planning visits to Canada, according to the joint statement issued this week. Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the country's Prime Minister, Vice-President and ruler of Dubai, and Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy supreme commander of the UAE armed forces, both accepted invitations to travel to Canada, but a foreign affairs spokesperson would not say when the trips are expected to take place.
Mr. Baird was forced to patch up relations with the UAE in recent years after a dispute over airline landing rights prompted the Gulf nation to cut off Canadian access to a military base used for moving troops and equipment in and out of Afghanistan.
The joint statement released late on Wednesday said Sheik Abdullah emphasized the importance of landing rights during his trip to Canada and said both countries would "work toward increasing the number of air travellers" between the UAE and Canada.
A spokesperson for Transport Minister Lisa Raitt said demand for air travel between the two countries is being met and Ottawa is not looking to expand landing rights for UAE airlines.