What started as a bid from Qatar to become the home of an international aviation group has escalated into a foreign affairs row between Canada and some Arab nations.
On April 22, the oil-rich Gulf nation made a proposal to host the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a UN agency that has been based in Montreal since 1946. The agency is responsible for setting world aviation rules and regulations necessary for safety, security and efficiency.
The ICAO's lease is set to expire in 2016, and Qatar claims the Canadian city is too cold and too far away from the key markets of Europe and Asia.
It is offering to cover the expenses of building new headquarters as well as paying its 534 employees, according to Arabian Business.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird personally intervened in the issue, speaking twice to Qatar’s Prime Minister, Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani.
"Minister Baird will fight tooth and nail to keep ICAO in its rightful home of Montreal," Baird's office told CBC News.
But some Arab countries are now considering supporting Qatar’s proposal in order to reaffirm their disapproval of Canada’s pro-Israel stance, emphasized by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s rejection of Palestine’s bid for statehood at the UN in November 2012, as well as Baird’s recent visit to Jerusalem, according to The Globe and Mail.
The ICAO’s proposed move to Qatar would have an economic impact. Based on an analysis by consulting firm SECOR, the ICAO is worth $119 million annually to Montreal's economy, and its offices are an emergency alternative to the UN’s headquarters in New York.
Air Canada and WestJet have joined the cause on Canada's side, as have labour groups such as the London-based International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF), which represents around 4.5 million transport workers in 150 countries, and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).
“I invite all business leaders in Montreal to take action to ensure that ICAO’s headquarters remain in this city,” said Calin Rovinescu, Air Canada’s president and CEO, according to a Monday Globe report.
"Over the years, the presence of ICAO here has attracted a cluster of other international bodies in the field of civil aviation, including IATA and, more recently, Airports Council International (ACI), which represents all of the world's major airports,” said Aéroports de Montréal president James Cherry in a statement.
Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the ITUC, agrees.
“The people who work for the ICAO need to know that they would be moving to a rights-free zone where the fundamental standards of the International Labour Organisation, a sister body of the ICAO, simply don’t apply," she said, according to Arabian Business.
The ICAO has said that it did not ask Qatar to make a bid, and ICAO policies state that in order for Qatar to get the lease, running from December 2016 through November 2036, 60 per cent of the organization’s 191 member states must vote in favour at its next meeting in September.