Posted on May 26, 2013

The brash power play by Qatar to poach the International Civil Aviation Organization from Montreal vanished as suddenly and surprisingly as it had appeared last month after the tiny emirate officially withdrew its offer Friday — without giving a reason.

The pullback by Qatar comes after France, the U.S., Britain and many others made clear their displeasure with the proposal, which came at what critics said was the worst possible time for ICAO. The United Nations organization is preparing its triennial conference in September, a meeting many call seminal because it is scheduled to deal with one of the most contentious issues in its 69-year history, how to deal with aviation greenhouse gas emissions, as well as on air security and safety issues.

In fact, Qatar withdrew its offer to pay for lavish new headquarters and to fund ICAO’s operations if the agency moved to Doha after a second proposition, to move the triennial conference to Doha, also failed. That proposal, which had not been publicized, was a tipping point, said Michel Wachenheim, France’s delegate to ICAO’s governing council, the decision-making body of 36 states, in an interview.

“This conference of the general assembly was to be held in Montreal, as it always is ... and twenty-two of the 36 said no, they thought that moving it (to Doha) four months before a general assembly was far too complicated,” said Wachenheim. One source, who requested anonymity and has access to the highest levels at ICAO, said in an interview that “the U.S. and France were particularly vehement during the meeting — they didn’t mince words.”

Wachenheim said that “at our meeting this (Friday) morning, we learned that Qatar had withdrawn its offer (to move the HQ).”

“We’re rejoicing. We think it’s a good thing. A move would undoubtedly have been very difficult to take. So we thank Qatar for having taken stock of the situation.”

Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said in an interview that he was informed of Qatar’s dropout in a call from Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani late Thursday night. They spoke of the good relationship between the two countries, but Baird said that “I’ll leave it to him and to Qatar to expand” on the reasons for the withdrawal. “But obviously we’re very pleased ... I’m happy and grateful.”

Aysha Al Hamili, the United Arab Emirates representative to ICAO, which represents Qatar’s interests at the agency, did not return calls.

Baird and Jean-Francois Lisée, Quebec’s Minister of International Relations, la Francophonie and External Trade who is also responsible for the Montreal region, along with Montreal Mayor Michael Applebaum presented a forceful united front after Qatar, a natural-gas rich kingdom of 250,000 citizens and more than 1.7 million foreigners, dropped its bombshell in April.

Baird said that in the last six weeks, he spoke with about 60 of his counterparts, foreign relations ministers “in every corner of the world, and we received great support around the world. Unanimous? No. But strong support. I was in Africa last week. We had very good discussions there. We obviously had good support from the Obama administration. France and the U.K. were very strong. And we had good support in the Middle East and in Asia.”

Some African representatives to ICAO are unhappy with visa requirements they call burdensome and slow, and Baird promised to streamline those. He wouldn’t say how China had leaned, but added that “over the last two, three or four years, our relations with Beijing have got demonstrably stronger.” Baird and Lisée, a sovereignist minister, praised each other’s commitments and ability to leave politics aside to work for a common purpose. “I think the partnership between Canada, Quebec and Montreal was very helpful,” said Baird. “We worked tremendously well together from the get go, and it’s important that the people of Montreal and Quebec know that,” a region where the Conservative government of Stephen Harper is increasingly unpopular. Lisée said in an interview from London that a good example of the unity they showed was in Paris, where Canadian Ambassador Lawrence Cannon and Quebec’s delegate general, Michel Robitaille, went together to the Quai d’Orsay — France’s foreign office — to press their case for Montreal. In fact, Lisée thanked Qatar at length for having done Montreal “a great favour.” 

“Their proposal made possible an absolutely huge publicity campaign on all international networks about the attractiveness of Montreal. It was probably the biggest diplomatic campaign favourable to Montreal that we have seen in memory. It also showed Montreal’s ability to retain international organizations. That sends a really strong signal — that even Qatar, with a monetary advantage that we don’t have, failed to displace one of our organizations.” No UN agency has moved after its founding, and critics of Qatar’s gambit say it would have reduced an international deliberative body to trophy status, another bauble in Qatar’s war chest of name-brand treasures purchased thanks to its near-unlimited reserves of natural gas. Baird said that he, Lisée and Applebaum “put aside politics ... and I think that surprised a lot of observers.” Critics who argue that Qatar’s bid was payback for Ottawa’s unconditional support of Israel are wrong, said Baird, arguing he has good working relations with the Palestinian Authority and with various Arab countries. “It never came up, it rarely came up” in his many visits to African and Arab countries, Baird noted. But the knowledgeable source said that in his extensive experience, “given Canada’s foreign policy these days (uncritical of Israel), Canada could not have won a political fight. When it meets, the OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation, with 57 members) take a united position — and they vote en bloc. It’s all or nothing.”

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, left, Montreal Mayor Michael Applebaum and Quebec’s Minister of International Affairs, Jean-François Lisée fought a bid by Qatar to move the ICAO headquarters from Montreal

Applebaum, sick and still mourning his brother’s death, was unable to do interviews Friday, said spokesperson Jonathan Abecassis. Asked if the joint campaign that succeeded so well was a good example of the benefits of federalism, Lisée replied: “Because ICAO is in Montreal and Montreal is in Quebec and Quebec, for the time being, is in Canada, the three levels of governments worked very, very hard together. But if Quebec had been independent, it would have been Montreal and Quebec. It doesn’t prove anything, but I’m very happy with the very active collaboration of the three governments for this operation.”

He also said that Qatar also managed to bring Baird and him together. “We have forged a very positive relationship, because in the last eight months (since the Parti Québécois was elected to a minority government), we didn’t have the opportunity to have a common goal like this one. So it opened channels of communications. On this, we saw completely eye to eye.” He said that “you never sensed Qatar made any important breakthrough” in enlisting the 60 per cent of votes it needed to secure a move to Doha, or about 115 countries. “Nearly all (27) European Union countries and many Latin America states were also favourable to us — and others were on the fence, waiting.” 
 
The refusal by a majority of the 36 countries to even place the proposal of moving the September assembly to Doha was the coup de grace, he added. One source said that China was favourable to Qatar’s position, and that it had important coattails in Africa, where many nations are reliant on Beijing for its purchase of their natural resources. But Lisée said that “I spoke with the Chinese representative and he told me that the important thing here is to settle irritants, notably the visa process for African states.”
 
"They were rather counselling us on the best way to win their votes.” The unnamed source agreed that “China discreetly preferred the status quo.” Any member state can propose to move ICAO to their own country, but Wachenheim said that the Qatar brouhaha may put an end to that for a while. Singapore made an attempt two years ago, but didn’t actually table an offer. “And Qatar is a serious country,” added Wachenheim. “After withdrawing this time, they won’t re-introduce the issue.” Lisée called the withdrawal “as final a victory as it can be.” Baird said that the new 20-year lease starting in 2016 that Ottawa had agreed to for the ICAO headquarters on University Ave. — still unsigned — “doesn’t stop anyone at any time from trying to move any UN organization anywhere.” ICAO secretary general Raymond Benjamin has “the unanimous support from the governing council to sign the (lease) agreement, and with the Qatar issue gone now, we hope they’ll sign it as is.” Canada has agreed to pay 80 per cent of the lease, but Baird added that “we want to earn the trust and confidence of our allies each and every day, if there’s anything we can do to make this UN headquarters in Montreal better, we’re obviously prepared to do it,” particularly expediting visa applications. “Montréal has been our home for many decades,” Benjamin said in a statement. “While the offer to move us to Doha was extremely generous, ICAO is also very pleased to continue its global mission with the support and cooperation of the Canadian and local governments who have hosted our headquarters for so many years now.”
 
The source was highly critical of Benjamin for spending too much time entertaining offers from various countries to poach ICAO. “For six months, he kept touring alternative sites” at the behest of other states interested in hosting the organization, he said, notably Singapore. He added that Benjamin dithered for months instead of signing the 20-year lease, giving Qatar an opening. But the secretary general is in fact legally bound to consider offers by member states. And an ICAO insider, who also declined to be identified, said that “what I can only suppose happened is that Qatar came in with its proposal and (Benjamin) thought he’d better hold off until things became a little clearer. It’s a good day for Montreal,” said George Petsikas, president of the National Airlines Council of Canada and one of the most outspoken critics of Qatar’s bid to wrest the United Nations agency from Montreal. The Qatar saga was the furthest any poaching attempt ever got — but it was hardly the only one. About 20 years ago, the insider recalled, Bonn made a bid for ICAO when German reunification meant it would lose a lot of government offices after the capital reverted to Berlin. Another proposal came from Vienna, which is one of four headquarters of the UN, along with New York, Geneva and Nairobi. The Austrian capital hosts a slew of UN agencies where 4,000 people work, a multiple of the 534 employees ICAO employs in Montreal. But neither offer stuck — nor did a third by Pakistan, which proposed Islamabad. 
 
That, said the insider, did not go over well with diplomats who spend much time on the cocktail circuit. “The Pakistanis promised there would be a tax-free booze-allowed area for people who lived there. But what do you do when you want to go anywhere else in the city?” That offer quickly died and Montreal lived to see another day as ICAO host. In fact, it started out as PICAO — for Provisional. As the Second World War was winding down, the U.K. and the U.S. were “at very strong odds” at the December 1944 Chicago Convention, which founded the aviation organization that sets standards for the industry. It became ICAO after Canada brokered a compromise during a diplomatic pitched battle between the two allies. “The U.K. was very worried because the U.S. had all this ex-war capacity aircraft and they were going to dominate the world,” said the insider. “The U.S. wanted to have ICAO in San Diego — which would have been very nice. But the U.K. put up a big battle and Canada came in and mediated, proposing Montreal as the headquarters.” ICAO attracted many aviation players and became the nucleus of a huge aerospace cluster in Montreal, employing 40,000 people, one of the world’s largest (see sidebar).

Bombardier Inc. would not comment directly on the brouhaha but made itself clear: “As the world’s third largest aircraft manufacturer, headquartered in Montreal,” Bombardier Aerospace spokesperson Haley Dunne said, “we’re proud that Montreal is the longtime home for the development of important standards, processes and rules that govern civil aviation worldwide.”

Asked if he was relieved that ICAO could now concentrate on its work again, Wachenheim replied: “Well, relieved is not the right word, because none of the issues before us is easy. But we’re happy we can again concentrate on all the subjects at the heart of ICAO — the environment, air safety and security. It’s good to deal with those in a more serene atmosphere again.”

source: The Montreal Gazette

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