Meeting the UAE Halfway

Back in August, 2009, I touted the benefits of the close ties between Canada and the United Arab Emirates. Flash forward to today and things seem quite different. A commercial dispute escalated into a diplomatic incident between both countries in which no one party can emerge victorious. In this globalized world size matters less than it did 50 years ago and the emphasis is now on international cooperation. The issue of landing rights has escalated in neither side's advantage. The local press has reported that in the two years that the UAE's ambassador has been stationed in Ottawa he has yet to meet with Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon.

Today, 27,000 Canadians call the UAE home along with thousands of UAE residents from various nationalities that contribute to the UAE's prosperity and have been educated in Canada's world-class universities.

The UAE has employed the same proactive approach with Canada that it has with other nations with regards to trade and tourism promotion when Etihad and Emirates launched direct flights to Toronto back in 2005 and 2007 respectively. Six years later, no Canadian airline has taken advantage of this growing market.

There also seems to be a misconception in Canada that the UAE is happy to sit on its laurels while the Canadians do all the dirty work in Afghanistan. That is untrue. The UAE's forces, as the BBC first reported, are "the only Arab soldiers undertaking full-scale operations in Afghanistan" from as far back as 2003. The UAE's commitment to world peace is no less than Canada's. And therein lies just one aspect of the common ideals that are shared between both nations, which is why hundreds of injured Canadian troops were given free medical care in the UAE before being airlifted home.

Canadian businesses in the UAE that contribute to the $2-billion two-way trade are represented through two business councils: one in Dubai, established as far back as 1993 with more than 320 members from sectors as diverse as oil and gas, education, food, and construction; and another, registered in 2005 in Abu Dhabi, with more than 200 members from sectors such as banking, hotels, telecoms and security. A visiting Canadian trade delegation indicated last week that exports from Alberta alone to the UAE are valued at $154 million per year.

The UAE, whose economy has quadrupled in the past decade to more than $270 billion, is an ideal base for ambitious Canadian firms to expand their businesses into a youthful regional market extending from East Africa to South Asia and the Middle East.

Dubai, the world's third largest re-export hub, also happens to be home to DP World, the world's third-largest global ports operator, managing 50 ports in 31 countries including DP World Vancouver, which has become a "key gateway port for the Trans-Pacific trades between Asia and the Pacific Northwest."

A positive correlation between increased flights and increased trade exchange has emerged. For instance, since launching the first Emirates flights to New York back in 2004, trade between the United States and the UAE has tripled to $12.7 billion in the 12 months to June, 2010, while the number of flights has increased to twice daily. There is no reason for this success not to be replicated in Canada.

Just last year Emirates Airlines and the British Columbia Transportation Ministry unveiled the results of a study that highlighted the benefits of the proposed increase in flights between both nations. The expected 275,000 annual passengers would contribute over $480 million in direct and indirect income to Canada as well as create thousands of jobs and an increased capacity of 27,000 tons of Canadian cargo export to the Middle East.

A middle ground approach to this matter can be found. Perhaps the Canadian aviation authorities could consider allowing a trial period of one or two years where the UAE-based carriers are granted the access that they seek. If Canadian jobs are seen to be at risk then this access can be revised.

Ultimately this is an issue where the gain for both sides is greater than the sum of its parts.

This article first appeared in The Globe and Mail on January 20 2011.