UAE mixes aviation and foreign policy

As U.S. and other NATO troops continue to die in Afghanistan, one of the main questions being asked in foreign policy circles is this: How committed are Arab governments to defeating al Qaeda and the Taliban? The United Arab Emirates showed last week that fighting violent extremism is less important than its commercial airlines’ well-being.

Most governments around the world help their carriers in various ways, not only out of national pride, but because a strong airline has a positive impact on a country’s economy. One of the missions of every U.S. embassy is to promote trade and commerce that benefit American companies. That has become an organic part of modern diplomacy.

The UAE, however, has gone farther than most countries do by kicking Canada out of Camp Mirage, a military base used to support operations in Afghanistan. Why? Because Ottawa refused to succumb to the tremendous pressure Abu Dhabi applied in the last several months to secure a significant expansion of flights to Canada for the UAE’s two largest airlines, Emirates and Etihad.

By doing so, the UAE has not only shown that its carriers’ profitability is more important than maintaining good foreign relations — it also risks harming the security of NATO members, and in fact regional and global stability.

The UAE’s ambassador to Canada, Mohammed Abdullah Al-Ghafli, expressed frustration with Canada’s rejection of his government’s demands, saying that “will only negatively impact the populations and economies of both countries.” His prediction may be correct, and some Canadians no doubt share it. Among them is Calgary Mayor David Bronconnier, who said in February that “airlines such as Emirates have an enormous ability to add to our economic vibrancy, business and tourism activity.”

Both Emirates and Etihad have an excellent reputation, and many travelers are happy about their success and wish them no ill. Their well-being is actually good for consumers, because it boosts competition and pushes other carriers to improve. Their competitors, on the other hand, feel differently, accusing Emirates and Etihad of receiving unfair assistance from the UAE government.

However one feels about the two carriers’ growth, holding defense and security hostage to commercial aviation is questionable at best.

The UAE sought to increase the current three flights a week to Toronto by both Emirates and Etihad to daily, and to add flights to Calgary and Vancouver. Air Canada naturally objected, though other airlines would have been affected, too. Many passengers traveling from the Middle East and South Asia to North America now fly first to Europe on Air Canada’s Star Alliance partners Lufthansa, Swiss International Airlines, Britain’s BMI and Austrian Airlines, and some of them connect to Air Canada.


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