DUBAI (Reuters) - The United Arab Emirates will close a military camp near Dubai used by Canadian troops to support operations in Afghanistan, a UAE source said on Sunday, in an escalation of a dispute over landing rights.
The decision comes after the UAE failed to convince Canadian authorities to allow its two major airlines to increase flights to Canada.
“Canada kept giving excuses and playing for time,” said the source, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Dubai carrier Emirates has been lobbying the Canadian government to boost its thrice-weekly direct flights to Toronto and more Canadian destinations. Etihad Airways, based in Abu Dhabi, also wants to increase flights.
Canadian carriers worry the UAE airlines would steal away connecting passengers that make their routes profitable and have lobbied the government to resist.
The UAE source said the agreement allowing Canada to use the airbase had expired in June. It was extended to September at Canada’s request.
“In the spirit of goodwill, the UAE went ahead and gave them the extension. The MOU has now expired and that is that.”
Other coalition forces in Afghanistan, including Australia, also use the airbase.
“Australia (bound) flights for example have gone up from 30 flights a week just a few years back to 100 flights a week today,” the source said.
“Obviously, you don’t expect the UAE to extend the same facilities to Canada as it does to Australia,” he added. “We have growing and improving relations with one while the other is playing for time.”
Earlier on Sunday, state news agency WAM quoted the UAE’s ambassador to Canada Mohammed Abdullah Al-Ghafli as saying his government was disappointed by the failure of five-year talks on the airline issue.
“The UAE entered negotiations in good faith on the understanding that a solution would be reached ... The fact that this has not come about undoubtedly affects the bilateral relationship,” Al-Ghafli was quoted as saying.
Canadian newspapers reported last week that Canada was preparing for a move in anticipation of the closure of the little-known Canadian base, called Camp Mirage.
“The Canadian government is now preparing to relocate forces from the United Arab Emirates to somewhere such as Cyprus rather than give in to what it considers unreasonable demands from the host country,” the Globe and Mail newspaper said.
Canada has already announced it will withdraw most of its 2,900 troops from Afghanistan next year.
A seven-year agreement between the two countries allows UAE carriers a limited number of flights a week to Canada, but increasing demand has made a change in terms necessary, a top official at the UAE’s civil aviation authority said on Sunday.
“Capacity on some flights reached 98 percent and normally agreements are adjusted upon exceeding 70 percent occupancy,” Saif Mohammed al-Suwaidi, director general of the aviation authority, told Al-Khaleej newspaper.
“We hope the Canadian side would reconsider its position and we will continue our persistent attempts to reach a compromise.”
Around 27,000 Canadian citizens reside in the UAE, Canada’s biggest trade partner in the Middle East and North Africa region, with bilateral trade exceeding $1.5 billion of which 95 percent is Canadian exports, WAM said.
Editing by Noah Barkin and Peter Graff