"I'd rather have a snowstorm than a sandstorm," quipped Jean-François Lisée, the Quebec minister responsible for the Montreal area, under the approving eye of federal Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird. Last Friday's joint press conference was a rare show of solidarity, as both levels of government joined hands with Montreal Mayor Michael Applebaum and the city's business community to mount a counteroffensive to Qatar's attempt to poach the headquarters of the International Civil Aviation Organization.
Most of the ICAO's 534 employees, who are not allowed to comment on the crisis, probably silently agreed with Mr. Lisée. If Qatar gets its way (it will need the support of 60 per cent of United Nations member states), the organization's cosmopolitan staff and highly specialized professionals would have to move to Doha, a desert city plagued with vicious sandstorms where temperatures can threaten 50 degrees Celsius in summertime.
Worse, ICAO employees would find themselves deprived of democratic rights in a country with a sharia-based legal system and where foreign workers are considered second-class residents. André Sirois, a Montreal lawyer who occasionally represents ICAO employees, predicts that if the agency moves to Qatar, most who accept the transfer will have to leave their families behind.
"Who wants to see his teenage kid thrown in jail indefinitely for a juvenile prank?" he asks. "And how many women will accept losing their basic rights by moving to an Islamist absolute monarchy that is routinely condemned by Human Rights Watch? There is a reason why all of the agencies of the United Nations are based in democratic countries."
But Qatar is using a variety of arguments, including Montreal's winters, to get the votes it needs. It has pointed to high taxes and the relatively thin schedule of international flights to and from Quebec's largest city.
Some journalists and opposition politicians have tried to link the threat to the Conservative government's close alliance with Israel, but this is petty politics. Only the terminally naive will believe that Qatar's offensive is inspired by Arab solidarity with the Palestinians.
Qatar's appetite for power is inversely proportional to its size. The emirate owns many of the fanciest pieces of real estate in Paris, London and the Côte d'Azur. The fabulous wealth derived from its oil and gas resources have been spun into profitable and high-profile investments throughout the world. So far, petro-dollars haven't been able to buy the prestige of hosting a major United Nations agency on Qatari soil, but they are a formidable tool in the offensive to transfer the ICAO to Doha. To lure UN member votes, Qatar is promising state-of-the-art facilities and an array of financial advantages.
Why now? Qatar saw a window of opportunity at the UN, where emerging countries are currently demanding more consideration. One complaint has been that all of the world body's agencies are located in Europe and North America.
The Qatari offensive also comes at a time when the ICAO is renegotiating its contract with Canada. The organization is using this threat to extract more concessions from the government, which will indeed do its best to accommodate the agency – an invaluable asset and the centrepiece of Montreal's aerospatial pole, which also includes many research centres and the head office of the International Air Transport Association.