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Canada puts landing rights dispute aside to bolster trade with UAE

Foreign Minister John Baird at the G20 foreign ministers summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, Sunday, Feb. 19, 2012.

Charles Dharapak/Associated Press/Charles Dharapak/Associated Press

At first glance, relations between Canada and the United Arab Emirates appear to be entering a renaissance.

There is talk of a nuclear co-operation agreement, the establishment of a business council between the two countries and recent high-profile meetings between both countries' foreign ministers.

Despite rumours of a rapprochement, however, the underlying dispute over landing rights for airlines from the UAE remains stubbornly unresolved.

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When I asked Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird whether there was any prospect of ending the stalemate, he answered with a decisive "No."

"We have an honest difference of opinion," Mr. Baird explained, a sentiment echoed by Emirati sources linked to the foreign ministry.

The quarrel, which flared up in 2010, culminated in the UAE evicting Canada's Camp Mirage base outside Dubai.

The Gulf country also imposed a costly travel visa on Canadians visiting the country and no longer offered a multi-entry option – a major irritant for business people who travel to trade shows through the region.

Yet trade between the two countries in increasing. Last year Canada exported more that $1.3-million of merchandise to the UAE, up roughly two hundred thousand dollars from the year before. Mr. Baird says there is room for "a lot more."

The Minister, in the region for talks with Saudi and Qatari officials, said "Canada's role in the Arab World and particularly the Gulf is a huge personal priority for me."

Speaking after the official opening of the Canadian embassy in Qatar, he said in an interview that he is seeking to boost Canada's trade with the region, and deepen diplomatic ties.

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In Qatar, he discussed the deteriorating situation in Syria with members of the ruling family, but would not specify whether talk turned to Qatar's recent calls to arm the Syrian opposition.

"I'll let Qatar speak for itself," Mr. Baird said.

In Saudi, he discussed Iran's nuclear ambitions and "how frightening that is."

He also acknowledged Canada's relationship with the UAE went through some "challenging times" but described it "today, as excellent."

"The UAE is a great commercial partner for Canada. It's been a great political and military partner in Libya and politically on Syria," he said.

As for the simmering dispute over landing rights and visas? "We've agreed to turn the page," he said.

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