Wings Magazine

UAE closes airspace to MacKay, Natynczyk


UAE closes airspace to MacKay, Natynczyk
Canada's top soldier and two cabinet ministers were up in the air on Oct. 11, 2010, their flight plans disrupted after the United Arab Emirates denied them landing in retaliation for a failed business deal.

October 12, 2010  By Jonathan Montpetit | The Canadian Press

Oct. 12, 2010, Kandahar, Afghanistan – Canada's top soldier and two cabinet
ministers were up in the air Monday, their flight plans disrupted
after the United Arab Emirates denied them landing in retaliation
for a failed business deal.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay, Veterans Affairs Minister
Jean-Pierre Blackburn and Chief of the Defence Staff, Gen. Walt
Natynczyk were flying home from a three-day visit in Afghanistan
when the wealthy Gulf nation closed its air space to their plane, a
military source in Ottawa confirmed to The Canadian Press.

The plane had to detour and it was unclear where it was headed
afterwards. Government officials were not willing to confirm the
location of the three senior officials, but one media report
suggested a city in Europe.

Just hours earlier in Kandahar, MacKay indicated that Canada was
being forced to vacate a military base in the UAE following the
failure of negotiations to expand aviation links between the two


"There have been discussions going on between the minister of
foreign affairs and his counterpart. These discussions have been
going on for some time," MacKay said a short time before he boarded
the plane.

"And at this point, we will abide by the wishes of the Emirates,
and… we will be leaving the base."

The UAE has been seeking more landing rights in Canada for its
fast-growing state carriers, Emirates and Etihad. Amid strenuous
objections by Air Canada, the talks stalled recently.

The UAE has blamed Canada for the failure of the five-year-long

By forcing Canada to vacate its base in Dubai, a once-secret
installation known as Camp Mirage, the UAE will disrupt the Canadian
military's principal supply line to Afghanistan.

Camp Mirage is Canada's only logistical hub in the Middle East.
The only other regular re-supply route for the military in Kandahar
is an overland crossing from Pakistan, which to date has been
reserved for low-priority items.

Convoys travelling from Afghanistan's neighbour usually hire
private security to fend off Taliban attacks.

The impending closure of Camp Mirage has left officials
scrambling for an alternative. It was to play a major role in the
withdrawal of Canadian troops from Afghanistan following the July
2011 end to the combat mission.

"We'll always act in Canada's best interests and one thing I
know about the Canadian forces, they're very adaptable,'' MacKay

"They have alternative plans, they have contingency plans. With
that in mind we're going through the various options that are before
us right now.

"And we'll continue to do our mission here in Afghanistan… and
we'll find other ways to support this mission through other hubs in
the region,'' he added.

Natynczyk acknowledged the military was preparing to cope with
upcoming changes to the Dubai base.

"We always have contingency plans in place," he said after
serving Thanksgiving dinner to troops at a Canadian operating base
in the Panjwaii district of Kandahar.

Canada had a years-old right to operate out of Camp Mirage under
an agreement that expired in June. But each party was also allowed
to give a one-month notice to end the agreement.

Media reports have suggested the UAE invoked that right last

At the heart of the dispute are demands by the two UAE airlines
to increase the frequency and destinations of their flights to
Canada. They currently operate a total of six flights a week to
Toronto from Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Air Canada has argued against increasing the flights, saying
there is very little passenger traffic originating from the UAE and
the two airlines are merely taking Canadians to third countries with
stopovers in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

But Ambassador Al-Ghafli said with 27,000 Canadians living in the
UAE, six flights per week do not service the economic needs of both

"It is unfortunate that this process has been so protracted and
frustrating," he said.

"The UAE entered negotiations in good faith on the understanding
that a solution would be reached and that constructive ideas would
be brought to the negotiating table. The fact that this has not come
about undoubtedly affects the bilateral relationship."

Prior to his plane taking off, MacKay attempted to strike a
conciliatory note to the UAE, even though a military spokesman
later clarified that the Department of National Defence was already
aware that the flight would not be allowed to land.

"We are very grateful for what the United Arab Emirates have
allowed us to do within their country," MacKay said. "They have
been very supportive of the Canadian mission, supportive of the
mission writ large, and for that we thank them."

On Tuesday, National Defence spokesman Jay Paxton said in an
email that the ministry "was already aware that the right to land
was being denied" when (MacKay)made this very gracious statement.

The UAE is Canada's largest trade partner in the Middle East and
North Africa with bilateral trade of over $1.5 billion.


Stories continue below