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How Conservative bill on marriage could undermine relations with UAE

Relations between Canada and the United Arab Emirates deteriorated when Ottawa refused to grant extra landing rights to Emirati air carriers.

AHMED JADALLAH/REUTERS

When Foreign Minister John Baird arrived in the United Arab Emirates Thursday, his official itinerary included fairly standard stuff: a trade meeting in Dubai, a business roundtable in Abu Dhabi and a glittery reception. But it's an item that doesn't appear on anyone's agenda that could prove to cause the biggest stir: polygamy.

Mr. Baird's visit to the UAE coincides with the Conservatives tabling a bill called the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act. The Conservatives claim a new law would purge early and forced marriages from Canada's immigration system and allow for the deportation of immigrants who practise polygamy.

Polygamy is already against the law in Canada, but in many of countries around the world, especially in the Persian Gulf, it's not. Some members of the royal families of the Gulf countries are believed to practice polygamy. Because marriage is treated as a private matter, its exact prevalence among rulers is unknown.

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In wider Emirati society, polygamy isn't considered "barbaric." It is relatively common (and permitted, if certain conditions are met, in Islam). Men may legally marry up to four wives, providing they obtain permission from their existing wife or wives and are able to financially support all wives. In recent years, there has been a backlash against the practice. (According to a 2005 study published by the UAE's Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, bigamy or polygamy was blamed in nearly 40 per cent of all divorces.)

Before the Conservatives tabled their bill last week, an internal government briefing note stamped "Secret" and obtained by The Canadian Press, warned the proposed measures against polygamy could draw international ire. "This new admissibility provision related to polygamy, even with the availability of tools to mitigate impact, will certainly create bilateral irritants since polygamy is recognized under civil law in 50 countries (e.g. United Arab Emirates) and under customary law in 12 countries (e.g. South Africa)," the document read.

If Emirati rulers take offence to the bill, it could undo years' worth of efforts by Mr. Baird and other Canadian officials to repair Ottawa's relationship with Abu Dhabi. The UAE is Canada's largest trading partner in the Middle East and is considered one of Canada's top investment priorities. "Canada's role in the Arab world and particularly the Gulf is a huge personal priority for me," Mr. Baird told me when I interviewed him in 2012, at the official opening of the Canadian embassy in Qatar.

Officially, Mr. Baird's office has dismissed any suggestion that the bill targeting polygamy among immigrants could damage bilateral relations. Christian Koch, director of the Gulf Research Center Foundation in Geneva concurs. "I really don't think the issue will come up at all," he said. "On the one hand, there are bigger concerns at the moment and the focus will most likely be on the joint fight against [Islamic State extremists], common approaches to the issues of Syria and Iran in terms of the nuclear negotiations, as well as promoting economic ties.

"On the other hand, polygamy is not something the UAE advertises and my sense is that even among Emirati nationals the practice is very much in decline. So from both perspectives, I do not think this will come up in the discussions," Mr. Koch added.

Still, disputes between Canada and the UAE have a history of starting small and escalating quickly. For decades, the two countries enjoyed a strong, stable relationship. Then four years ago, things took a turn for the worse. It started when Ottawa refused to grant extra landing rights to Emirati air carriers. Abu Dhabi bit back hard: It evicted Canada's Camp Mirage base from Dubai, lobbied against Canada's 2010 bid for a United Nations Security Council seat and slapped a costly visa requirement on Canadians visiting the UAE.

For the past two years, things appeared to be improving. Canada and the UAE signed a civilian nuclear co-operation agreement, established a joint business council and economic committee. Mr. Baird visited the UAE several times. Last summer, his Emirati counterpart, Sheik Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, spent a week travelling across Canada with him. Together, they drank coffee at Tim Hortons. They even attended the Calgary Stampede together.

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If a bilateral relationship is like a marriage, this one still appears to be on the mend. The underlying dispute over landing rights remains unresolved, but as Mr. Baird told me in Doha, back in 2012: "We've agreed to turn the page." Perhaps that's still possible – as long everyone sticks to the agenda.

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