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Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird pours a cup of Tim Hortons coffee for Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, his counterpart from the United Arab Emirates, in Abu Dhabi on April 2, 2013.

CHRISTOPHER PIKE

Of all the regions in the world, the Middle East is probably the least appropriate place for Canada to apply a business-first foreign policy, say a number of current and former diplomats with experience in the area.

"Things in the Middle East are not so black and white," said Michael Bell, who served twice as Canadian ambassador to Israel, and also was ambassador to Egypt and Jordan. Diplomacy there "is much more about politics than about commerce."

The diplomats were responding to the news that Canada was taking its foreign diplomacy in a new direction. Henceforth, the government has announced, the concept of "economic diplomacy" will be "the driving force behind the Government of Canada's activities through its international diplomatic network."

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"With all the conflict in the Middle East, there's a lot riding on the policy decisions Canada takes there," Mr. Bell said. "Things can't be just about business."

In the case of Iran, for example, Ottawa made a clear policy decision last year to sever diplomatic ties with a country it considered to be a renegade – both in relation to its controversial nuclear development and as a gross violator of human rights. Now Canada is paying the commercial price for pulling out its diplomats, just as it appears that trade with Iran may be resuming as international sanctions are being lifted.

On the other hand, in the case of the United Arab Emirates, a business-first approach to diplomacy cost Canada the use of a valuable military base in the Persian Gulf. The UAE had granted Canada the use of the base just outside Abu Dhabi for flying in and out of Afghanistan. It also provided Canadians with free-of-charge hospital care.

What the UAE wanted in return for extending this arrangement after 2010 was greater landing rights in Canada for its two popular airlines – Emirates and Etihad. Apparently acting in what it thought to be the best interests of Air Canada, Ottawa refused. Canadian officials told the emirs "we don't mix business with politics." The emirs do, however, and they told Canada to find a military base somewhere else.

"I'd be interested in seeing the balance sheet for that re-location [to Kuwait]," said Mr. Bell. "Losing a free facility and having all the relocation costs to boot – it must be costing many millions of dollars."

It would be a mistake for Canada to put all its diplomatic eggs in one commercial basket, said a former Canadian ambassador now posted outside the region.

"While a number of countries – including France and the U.K. – put a great deal of emphasis on helping their countries' business interests, they also maintain strong diplomacy on security and other important sectors," said the official, who spoke on condition of remaining anonymous as he is not authorized to speak publicly.

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This is especially true for the Middle East, he said.

In the case of Egypt, Jordan and (newly named) Palestine, assistance in development and Canadian political goals come well before trade.

"Foreign aid is central to these relationships," said Mr. Bell. "And it would be a shame to cut off such countries just because Canada couldn't make a buck out of its dealings."

Providing foreign assistance pays off for Canada in other ways, Mr. Bell pointed out. "Being a donor in these countries meant the foreign minister's door was always open to us," he said. "Getting to meet with the people we wanted to see, helped us make good policy decisions," he argued.

"You can't make good policies unless you're well informed," Mr. Bell said. "And you don't necessarily get the information you need just by closing business deals."

Then, when it comes to Israel, the Harper government has made it clear, political support for that country comes ahead of any other interest, commercial or otherwise.

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As it turns out, Israel is more technologically advanced than most other countries in the region and business opportunities – facilitated by a free-trade agreement with Canada – are numerous.

But "business," said Mr. Bell, "will never come first when it comes to our relations with Israel."

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