After a few rocky years, Canada’s relations with the United Arab Emirates seem to be improving again, and it’s Mohammed Saif Helal Al Shehhi’s job to further consolidate them.
Mr. Al Shehhi presented his credentials to become the UAE’s ambassador in September.
Canada and the UAE had a falling-out three years ago when Canada refused to grant more landing rights to two of the Middle Eastern country’s national air carriers.
Foreign Minister John Baird, previously transport minister, was fingered in media reports as lobbying against the UAE’s demands.
The UAE revoked Canada’s privileges to a military base Canada was using there. The Middle Eastern country also slapped visa requirements on Canadians travelling to the UAE.
Meanwhile Mr. Al Shehhi’s predecessor, Mohamed Abdula Al Ghafli, had been unsuccessfully trying to meet with Canada’s then-foreign minister Lawrence Cannon for more than a year, media reports revealed.
Since becoming foreign minister in the spring of 2011, Mr. Baird has met in Ottawa twice with his counterpart from the UAE, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan (including once on a frigid day last March—a true sign of friendship, if ever there was one). Last fall, they announced a nuclear co-operation deal.
Mr. Baird has travelled to the Gulf country several times and, according to Mr. Al Shehhi, is scheduled to return in April for bilateral talks. They may even announce the members of a new joint business council, he said—although he cautioned it was still in planning stages, with the UAE having just submitted to Canada the names of its proposed members.
The UAE’s economy minister also visited Canada last fall. The minister brought along 25 business leaders, noted Mr. Al Shehhi’s assistant, Melissa Valks, who sat beside him during an interview on a bitterly cold January day in his modern, spotless embassy.
As he sipped tea sitting on a couch in a wood-pannelled reception room, Mr. Al Shehhi said his role in Canada is to “make something more for our relations.”
He spoke positively of the access he’s had to Canadian parliamentarians, including Mr. Baird, and other government officials.
Part of the relationship building is boosting commercial ties.
He’s already visited Mont Tremblant, Quebec City, and Montreal, but wants to head west to Alberta where companies from his oil- and gas-rich country are working. Taqa North, for instance, has since 2007 invested about $8 billion in the Canadian energy sector.
Altogether, UAE investment in Canada tops $10 billion, he said. But he’s interested in diversifying it from mainly just oil and gas.
A regional hub, the UAE is Canada’s top trading partner in the Middle East and North Africa, according to the embassy.
Canada has a lot to offer in areas of concern to the UAE, said Mr. Al Shehhi, including in education, health, and renewable energy.
The UAE is already home to between about 27,000 and 42,000 Canadians (depending on which country’s numbers you use).
But there are imbalances in the flow of people Mr. Al Shehhi would like to help change. While in December alone he said his embassy received more than 40 passports for visa applications, few UAE citizens come to Canada as tourists, and the student population could also stand a boost.
Mr. Al Shehhi is hoping the embassy’s new cultural attaché position will facilitate more educational links, including the opening of Canadian university campuses in the UAE.
Despite the thaw in relations, the UAE hasn’t brought down its visa requirement, although Mr. Al Shehhi stressed that the government has made it more convenient by bringing the price down by one-third, for instance, and ensuring faster processing times.
The age-old diplomatic principle of reciprocity applies to lifting visas, he said. If Canada gives UAE citizens an exemption, it would likely do the same.
The UAE is also still waiting to hear about receiving more landing rights for its air carriers, said Mr. Al Shehhi. The two sides will discuss it, he said.
“We hope and we wait. And I think now we have very good relations. And…in the future, we [will] have more rights,” he said.
Mr. Al Shehhi has been able to break into everyday Canadian life while doing dad duties such as taking his kids to swimming lessons and horseback riding.
At 44, Mr. Al Shehhi is managing his first ambassadorial posting and a busy home life. His wife, Aseela Juma Abdullah, is studying at the University of Ottawa, and his four children (two girls, two boys) are aged six, five, four, three, and eight months.
Before the family left for Canada, Mr. Al Shehhi sought advice from Canada’s then-ambassador to the UAE, Ken Lewis.
Since joining the diplomatic service in 1992, all his postings have been in Europe, including Rome, Paris, and Geneva. In a somewhat unusual occurrence for an ambassador from the UAE, Mr. Al Shehhi is more comfortable speaking French, although his English is fluent.
A lot of people from the UAE speak English as a second language. But partly because he studied international relations and Arabic-French translation in France, he was posted in Paris twice for a combined 11 years.
From the City of Light to Ottawa, he remarked on the lack of top-quality Arab restaurants in the national capital, despite the large number of Lebanese and Arabs in the city.
But he said he finds Ottawa to be quiet, family-friendly, clean, and secure.
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