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No vacancy: the politics of expulsion from Camp Mirage.

The Middle East is always good for a distraction. In the ocean that churns up the political upheavals common in the region, Canada doesn't come close to producing the biggest ripples.

The flavour of the month is of course Egypt and, to a lesser extent, Tunisia, Jordan and Yemen. Our television reporters are happy to do a stand-up in front of massive, protesting crowds, and news anchors are content to declare that these are very important events, surely the most important in the region, and move on to the next story. When this happens, members of the Canadian government sigh in relief that our country has very little to do in the domestic politics of North Africa and the Persian Gulf. Those officials might also sigh in relief that the media and the opposition parties seem to have forgotten that, back in October, the minister of defence and chief of defence staff were barred from entering a Persian Gulf country.

The country in question is the United Arab Emirates, a conservative constitutional monarchy of about five million people. Its claim to fame is probably its largest emirate, Dubai: home to the world's tallest building, biggest shopping mall, man-made islands in the shape of the world and an indoor ski slope. The UAE seems to have no problem being friendly with Western countries who supply it with tourists and a market for its abundant oil resources. Its affinity for achieving a higher standard of living is somewhat out of place in its neighbourhood as it shares land borders with Oman and Saudi Arabia and sea borders with Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Iran.

Needless to say, the UAE was taking a risk when it allowed the Canadian Forces to use Camp Mirage as a strategic logistics hub for its mission in Afghanistan. One only has to look back to the Gulf War when Saudi Arabia opened its doors to coalition forces to see how upset that made the more fundamentalist members of Islam. In that light, the UAE was justified in limiting access to information about Camp Mirage's precise location.

This nine-year partnership between Canada and the UAE ended promptly and dramatically in October 2010. Defence Minister Peter MacKay and Chief of Defence Staff Walt Natynczyk were denied clearance to land at Camp Mirage on their way back from visiting Canadian soldiers for Thanksgiving in Afghanistan.

The UAE then told the rest of the Canadian forces stationed at Camp Mirage to get packing and now require that all visiting Canadians buy visas, a requirement not made on any other visiting foreign nationals.

This shocking, hasty and, some would say, drastic decision from an ally took everyone by surprise. Why did the UAE have it out for friendly old Canada? Why were they treating Canadians like a threat? Had they changed sides in the global war on terror? No, the reason is almost embarrassingly simple--for nine years the Canadian government had refused to pay its rent.

The UAE agreed to let Canadians stage our in-theatre operations from Camp Mirage at no cost, with the understanding that the Canadian government would loosen access restrictions to Canadian airports. Right now, only Toronto is allowed to receive up to three flights originating from the Emirates. The UAE wants Dubai-based Emirates Airline and Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways to be able to land in more Canadian cities, such as Calgary and Vancouver.

The Conservative government took advantage of the fact that the Liberals weren't able to hammer out the structure of the deal while in power and have flatly rejected the UAE's request to open the skies for the last five years.

Not only was the mishandling of this important bilateral relationship costly (it will take millions to find a base as useful as Camp Mirage) and embarrassing for the Canadian government, it was also a chance for the opposition parties to hold the Conservatives accountable for a spotty record on foreign affairs.

The Canadian taxpayers pay Bob Rae (Liberal -Toronto Centre) to criticize the decisions the government makes in the foreign affairs portfolio. His role in the shadow cabinet is an important one that aims to ensure Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition is keeping track of its political opponents' actions and offering policy alternatives to Canadian voters. Of course, this role is at its most politically advantageous when Parliament is led by a minority government; when any scent of blood in the water could trigger an election.

Bob Rae travelled to the Persian Gulf and wrote in his blog: "It is surely an ironic twist that the old Reform Party and Stephen Harper have become advocates of closed skies and pure and simple protectionism.'"

In criticizing the government from a politically partisan and economic standpoint, Mr. Rae left himself open to attacks of the same kind.

In allowing the argument to be framed around domestic concerns--such as which party is a better steward of the economy and who has the best interests of the 'Canadian worker' at heart--Mr. Rae gave up his chance to keep the debate focused where it should be: providing the best operating capacity for the Canadian Forces and living up to our obligations overseas.

Canada and the UAE conduct about $1.5 billion in annual trade. Canadian lawyers, architects, city planners, oil industry experts and financiers have flocked en masse to the desert state to take part in its lightning-fast growth. While the UAH has been accepting of Canadians entering its country to make fast money, Canada is unwilling to return the favour when it comes to one of the most politically charged industries--air travel.

Parliamentary Secretary to the Heritage Minister Dean Del Mastro (Conservative--Peterborough) said, "Canada has been a friend and ally of the UAE and deserves to be treated with respect ... as the ninth largest economy in the world we have a lot to offer the UAE, the world's 35th largest economy. Allowing them to dictate the terms of trade unilaterally, however, isn't the kind of trade relationship we need."

The unwitting irony of Mr. Del Mastro's moving statement on respect is that it was probably first uttered by the Emiratis when they learned Canada had reneged on the original deal. Yes, Canada has a lot to offer the UAE but the government is acting like it was never really prepared to deliver any of it. Respect is a currency that must be traded equitably among nations; the arrogance and presumption of Mr. Del Mastro's comment precludes the discussion from being based on facts.

In pointing out the obvious hypocrisy of this situation Bob Rae was painted by his opponents as someone who loved the Emirates' airline more than Canadian workers. He was also lambasted for criticizing the government on foreign soil. Dimitri Soudas, a Prime Minister's Office spokesperson, wrapped himself in the flag to express the common sentiment that politics should stop at the water's edge: "Canadians expect that when Canadian MPs travel abroad, they represent Canada and Canadian interests. It would be extremely regrettable if Canadian interests were undermined in any way."

Unfortunately, Mr. Soudas did not expand on what he thought "Canadian interests" were, but it's likely that he meant Canadian domestic interests, which aren't always in line with our international ones--especially in times of war.

The question remains then, are Canadian interests being served if MPs (especially foreign affairs critics) are not permitted to question the actions of the government while outside the country? Are we better off having our officials fall silent once the government has made up its mind for the sake of providing the appearance of a united front?

These questions were raised a few months ago when the Canadian government blamed Opposition Leader Michael Ignatieff for our loss of a seat on the UN Security Council. Ignatieff, like Rae, was used as a scapegoat to distract from the fact that the Conservatives couldn't close the deal on the UN vote; just as they now shirk responsibility for ruining our relationship with a useful ally.

Saying you support the troops is not enough evidence to convince everyone that you do. The actions of the government must be subject to accountability because that is the only way parliamentary democracy works. Limiting the decisions of policy to who is more patriotic and who loves the Canadian worker more does a disservice to those whose lives rely on having their leaders make informed and objective decisions.

Unfortunately for the men and women who were counting on Camp Mirage to be the place where the bulk of our combat vehicles and supplies would be sent as the mission turned from one of combat to one of training, the debate did not include them.

Petty and absurd accusations instead became the norm in this discourse when Duncan Dee, chief operating officer of Air Canada, entered the debate.

"I would caution the government from taking advice from a party that oversaw about a dozen Canadian airline bankruptcies during its tenure in office from 1993 to 2006. Rather than campaigning for votes in Dubai and Abu Dhabi," stated Mr. Dee, "Mr. Rae should be speaking up for the hundreds of thousands of Canadians whose livelihoods depend directly or indirectly on a strong and vibrant Air Canada and Canadian airlines industry."

The opposition opened this can of worms with one question: "Why have we been kicked out of Camp Mirage and forced to spend millions of dollars relocating our logistical operations base in the Persian Gulf?"

The answer they got was, essentially, stop favouring a foreign country's interests above Canadian workers, support the troops and never mind that we've alienated an ally because they weren't really with us to begin with.

The Prime Minister summed up the ordeal very succinctly: ''What this teaches us in future and when we're looking at other options is: Don't get in a place where somebody's going to try and use it to leverage some unrelated issue."

In complicating this dispute with the perception that the UAE is linking a commercial agreement to fighting 'violent extremism,' the government has expertly done what it claims to abhor. A warning to the government: there aren't enough Liberal MPs to blame for future missteps with our allies; choose the next base carefully.
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Title Annotation:IN THE NEWS; Canadian Forces forward logistics facility in Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Author:Leclerc, Eric
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Mar 1, 2011
Words:1702
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