TORONTO — A bid by Qatar to relocate the United Nations' civil aviation agency from Montreal to the tiny emirate has angered Canada, where politicians from all sides vowed Friday to band together to fight the proposed move.
The International Civil Aviation Organization, which sets international civil aviation standards, has been in Montreal since its founding in 1946. Qatar presented ICAO with an unsolicited offer last month to serve as the new permanent seat of the organization beginning in 2016.
The proposal included construction of new premises, paying to move materials and staffers, and paying for all expenses resulting from staff terminations and severance packages, according to the U.N. agency. Qatar did not tell Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird about the bid when he visited the Gulf nation last month.
"They didn't do us the courtesy of raising this with us directly when the minister was in Qatar last month," Foreign Affairs spokesman Rick Roth said. He noted that the way Qatar has acted "demonstrates why they are not a suitable host for a United Nations organization."
Baird reiterated with a jab to the Gulf country's climate.
"I, for one, would much rather have four seasons rather than a crushing humid temperature of more than 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) 12 months a year," he said, speaking in French during a news conference in Montreal, where Baird presented an unusually united front with a minister from Quebec's separatist provincial government.
The prospect of losing the U.N. agency from Montreal is so alarming that Jean-Francois Lisee, Quebec's minister of international affairs, said Qatar's bid to take ICAO may have prompted "one of the greatest political reunions in the history of Quebec and Canada."
Lisee said Qatar has noted Montreal's cold winters as a reason to move ICAO.
"So we have counter arguments and we will not be shy about the fact that winter is something that you can enjoy and it doesn't last all year," Lisee said. "And when you look at the heat in Doha all year, if you want to talk weather, we'll talk weather."
Qatar, one of the world's richest countries with vast oil and gas reserves, has been pushing to become a major player on the global stage in the last few years. It shocked the sporting world by beating out the United States and others to host the World Cup in 2022 and is looking to host the 2020 summer Olympic games. It also has taken an active role in Mideast politics, providing weapons and funding to the Syrian rebels fighting the Assad regime, promoting peace in Sudan's troubled Darfur region and pushing for a resumption of Israeli Palestinian peace talks.
ICAO said the offer must be considered at the agency's triennial assembly meeting Sept. 24-Oct 4, where 60 percent of its 191 member states must vote in favor of it for Qatar's proposal to become reality.
"I've talked to at least two Arab countries who are very positive and supportive," Baird said. "There is no doubt Qatar will fight to get the votes from each and every one of its neighbors and we'll fight hard for votes in that part of the world."
Baird's remarks came a day after he accused Qatar of "offering a lot of money to bring this headquarters to Doha," and said it should not be for sale.
For Qatar's bid to prevail, at least 60 percent of the ICAO's 191 member states must sign off. A vote is set for September.
Losing ICAO would be a blow for Canada and Montreal, the hub of Canada's aviation industry. ICAO employs 534 people and says it generates about $80 million annually for Montreal's economy. Its current headquarters were built in the 1990s at a cost of $100 million.
"I'm certainly not aware of any serious complaints of how we host the organization," Prime Minister Stephen Harper said. "Canada and Quebec have been great hosts for the organization. There is absolutely no reasonable case to move the center out of Montreal."
Opposition parties in Canada say the bid by Qatar is politically motivated and a reflection of Canada's firm pro-Israel policy in the Middle East. Roth said Canada's Conservative government "will continue to promote a principled foreign policy."
Canada has been tussling with several Gulf nations in recent years. The United Arab Emirates lobbied against Canada's bid for a seat on the U.N. Security Council in 2010 after relations soured following disputes over airline routes, after Canada refused to open more flights for the fast-growing carriers Emirates and Etihad Airways.
Canada's support for Israel was also seen as a factor in losing the backing of Arab countries.
The government in Abu Dhabi also forced Canada to leave a military base that is used to supply Canadian forces in Afghanistan.