Canada, UAE relations suffer after diplomatic dust-up

OTTAWA—Defence Minister Peter MacKay says Canada has some work to do in repairing relations with a key Middle Eastern ally.

Before boarding a flight to a NATO summit with the prime minister, MacKay did not dispute a news report revealing his frustrations with a government decision to deny greater access to Canadian airports for two United Arab Emirates-backed airlines.

As a result, the UAE kicked Canada out of a military airbase used to supply Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan. The UAE has since decided travellers from Canada must now have a visa before entering the country.

“My view is that we obviously have some work to do . . . in repairing the relationship with the United Arab Emirates,” MacKay admitted Thursday.

“Clearly the circumstances under which we left the base require now some work.”

Later in the Commons, the government’s House leader John Baird did not deny suggestions of a split in cabinet ranks.

But he defended the decision to deny greater airport access: “The deal that was in front of us was not of net benefit to Canada and that is why we could not sign on,” said Baird.

Liberal House leader Ralph Goodale derided the former transport minister.

“Why will this reckless minister not just admit to a very stupid mistake?”

There is a cost to Canada’s scramble to find a new supply base for its Afghan operations, reportedly more than $300 million. Canada is now looking to use bases in Germany and Cyprus for those tasks.

Prior to flying to the NATO summit in Lisbon, Portugal, MacKay said: “We haven’t calculated all the costs. We’ll look at close-out costs when the time is right. We’ve had to relocate to other bases. My primary concern is that we continue to have operational efficiencies. We have to continue to supply personnel, equipment going into the Afghan theatre.”

Canadian soldiers have been flying out of Camp Mirage, as the secret base had been known, for a decade at no cost.

MacKay had been quoted speaking to caucus colleagues about the matter outside during a fire drill Wednesday.

Overheard by a reporter, MacKay was said to be wearing an Emirates baseball cap, the name of one of the two state-owned carriers. He was quoted complaining that former transport minister Baird’s pressure around the cabinet table to deny the UAE the increased landing rights they had sought has set relations between the two countries back 10 years. Prime Minister Stephen Harper had sided with Baird in cabinet.

MacKay has been the focus of attention in recent days after reports he was in talks with a Bay St. law firm about a job in the new year.

His colleagues yesterday refused to discuss the defence minister’s musings about the UAE fallout.

“I think there’s a lot of speculation by the media,” said Industry Minister Tony Clement who tried to deflect questions. He said cabinet had made a decision and he was comfortable with that decision.

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