The United Arab Emirates' decision to require thousand-dollar visas for visiting Canadians is a clumsy overreach that will do nothing to quell tensions between the two countries. It demands an explanation, especially if the UAE wants to enhance economic relations with Canada - which ought to be the main strategic interest of the relationship.
The issue is competence, not cost. Although steep, the top reported cost of the longest-available visa ($1,000 for a six-month, multiple-entry visa, maximum of 14 days a visit) should be manageable for most Canadian business travellers to the UAE. The new apparent requirement to get the visa in advance adds a hassle. And in any case, the UAE seems ready to recognize visas that the Emirates airline and Etihad Airways say they can secure more quickly and cheaply for their passengers.
All this qualified language is necessary, thanks to the silence of UAE diplomats; they have offered little clarity on what is happening, and no explanation of why.
Here is one possible interpretation: By showing the ability of the airlines to get cheap visas, the UAE is indirectly touting their strength, and making another statement about Canada's refusal to grant additional landing slots to Emirates and Etihad at Canadian airports.
That policy is indeed anticompetitive and ill-advised. But the UAE has already punished Canada once for it - by barring Canadian access to the Afghanistan mission staging facility at Camp Mirage near Dubai, in a disproportionate move that improperly introduced a national-security element into a commercial dispute. So without an explanation, the visa is an added snub, but an oblique one, of less direct consequence.
All the while, energy is being wasted on diplomatic games when it should be focused on increasing prosperity. Trading relations are, at the moment, somewhat unbalanced. Canada send exports to the UAE ($1.3-billion in 2009, or almost seven times the UAE's exports to Canada), and in return gets foreign direct investment ($4.4-billion, or 63 times what Canada invests in the UAE).
The potential for the relationship is great. Canada has expertise in the things the UAE needs: infrastructure, technology, education and health care, while the UAE is a growing market for Canada, a growing destination for Canadian workers and a gateway to the whole Gulf region.
Canada should change its landing slot regime, but Canadians should not be forced to interpret tea leaves. The UAE should promptly explain its visa decision, or reverse the policy.