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Canada development partnership with U.A.E. builds bridges into Arab world

OTTAWA – Canada has a new development partner in the Arab world, and the foreign-aid minister says it could help the Harper government navigate the complex Middle East in the fight against poverty.

Canada signed a development co-operation agreement with the United Arab Emirates this week at a major international development meeting in Mexico.

The deal’s main goals are to reduce poverty, support economic growth and promote human rights.

More broadly, it helps position Canada as a friend to the Arab world at a time when the Harper government is seen as unabashedly pro-Israel.

Development Minister Christian Paradis said Canada was looking forward to working with the U.A.E., and touted his counterpart, Sheikha Lubna Bint Khalid Al Qasimi, as “a great woman.”

Paradis said the U.A.E. wants to tap Canada for its development expertise as its own international aid agency is being launched. And he said the U.A.E. can help Canada better target aid dollars to the so-called Arab Street.

“They are very knowledgeable, they can direct us on some practical measures on the ground,” Paradis said in an interview from Mexico City.

“We have a good reputation and they want to replicate our public policy.”

The deal echoes the bridge building that Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has undertaken with the U.A.E., an influential ally of Canada in the Arab and Muslim world.

A year ago, Baird and his U.A.E. counterpart Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan resolved a three-year diplomatic dispute by announcing the end of a visa on Canadian travellers to the Emirates.

The two countries became embroiled in a dispute that started when Canada declined to give additional landing rights to a pair of U.A.E. airlines. The U.A.E. evicted the Canadian Forces from a military base near Dubai, which had been an important staging ground for the Afghanistan mission.

Baird expended much energy in trying to repair the relationship, and appeared to do so by forging a close working relationship with Sheikh Zayed.

The countries have since signed a nuclear co-operation deal and have created a Canada-U.A.E. business council to improve commercial relationships.

Paradis said he’s keen to forge foreign-aid partnerships that recognize the need to engage with private sector partners.

As the Mexico meeting wrapped, Paradis announced two more projects Thursday designed to increase private-sector involvement in international development. They include the Frontier Markets project, which will offer help to small and medium-sized businesses in anti-poverty projects in developing countries.

The private-sector focus in development has opened the government to criticism. But Paradis said he held discussions with many like-minded countries in Mexico last week, including France, which has an “economic diplomacy” model similar to the new approach announced by Canada late last year.

The world will be moving into a new phase in the anti-poverty fight as the era of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals draws to a close next year.

Paradis said Canada will be pushing for greater private-sector involvement in the creation of a new set of post-2015 development goals.

“We will have to think about innovative financial tools for sure,” he said.

“Down the road, what we want to keep in mind is these goals are for the eradication of poverty.”