Qatar’s Big Mistake? Messing With Stephen Harper

The headquarters of The International Civil Aviation Organization (“ICAO”) has been located in Montreal since 1946. Now, the upstart oil-rich kingdom of Qatar wants to lay down some really big buckaroos to move the ICAO head office and all its employees from Montreal to Qatar’s very own foreign worker-based country.

These autocratic Qatar oil sheiks have a lot of chutzpah. But respect for civil rights and workers’ rights? Not so much.

Before I speculate on the “shock and awe” attack ad campaign that Stephen Harper will unleash against this unsuspecting Persian Gulf emirate, here is some important background information.

By its own description, ICAO is “a specialized agency of the United Nations. It was created in 1944 to promote the safe and orderly development of international civil aviation throughout the world. It sets standards and regulations necessary for aviation safety, security, efficiency and regularity, as well as for aviation environmental protection. The Organization serves as the forum for co-operation in all fields of civil aviation among its 191 Member States.”

ICAO’s current Montreal headquarters were built in the 1990s at a cost of about $100-million.

The organization employs 534 people and it generates over $80-million annually for Montreal’s economy.

For over 67 years, Montreal has been an effective host of this UN Agency. There have been no serious complaints by the UN, ICAO, or its employees about Montreal, or Quebec, or Canada. Except that now, Qatar has suddenly discovered that the weather in Montreal is too cold. And Canada may be too far from Asia and Europe.

This does not seem to be a deal-breaker to me. But the UN and its members have been known to make some wacky decisions. Electing Libya to the UN Human RightsCouncil in 2011, comes to mind.

Losing ICAO would be a blow for Canada and Montreal, the hub of Canada’s aviation industry.

Qatar is proposing to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to construct new premises in Qatar, to move materials and staffers, and to pay for all expenses resulting from staff terminations and severance packages.

Qatar is also counting on using its oil wealth and its influence in the Arab and Muslim world to persuade enough Arab and Muslim UN member states, and at least 60 per cent of the 191 UN member states, to vote against Canada and move the ICAO headquarters to Qatar. The idea seems to be to punish Canada for its apparently one-sided pro-Israeli international position.

Qatar’s big mistake is thinking that the Prime Minister and his Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird are just going to roll over and do nothing — essentially wimp out like past federal Liberal leaders. Or like past federal Liberal governments, which tried to get along diplomatically by going along.

Such past Liberal governments would seriously consider throwing Israel under the bus over an issue like this. Or perhaps cutting back on public support of Israel, under the guise of being an “honest broker” between Israel and the Palestinians in order to curry favour with Arab dictators and Arab oil sheiks (and to get their vote). Keeping ICAO in Montreal and perhaps winning Canada a temporary seat on the UN Security Council.

Fortunately, Canada is not currently led by one of these past governments, or by federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau. If Justin were faced with this very real threat from Qatar, he would probably engage in some serious soul-searching and naval gazing, searching far and wide for the root causes of why “poor” Qatar feels “excluded.” His mother, Maggie Trudeau, would probably whine publicly that Qatar is acting like a bully to her poor son, Justin. And to Canada. Because Justin and Canada just want to get along with everyone.

Unfortunately for Justin, the harsh reality is that Canada lives in a very tough, brutal, and competitive world where singing Kumbaya and dancing with flowers in your hair around the maypole do not impress oil potentates like Qatar.

Fortunately, Harper and Baird no longer give a flying frack about Canada being voted in as a temporary member of the UN Security Council. They also don’t give a frack about sucking up to such sterling UN members as Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen — or a whole host of other morally challenged UN member states.

Fortunately, in other words, Harper is one tough, decisive, hard-nosed, and hard-assed dude. And so is John Baird.

Quickly, Harper and Baird secured the very important support of the Obama Administration in opposing Qatar’s move on ICAO. Harper has temporarily buried the hatchet with Quebec Premier Pauline Marois. And together the right wing anti-Christ and the Separatist Destroyer of Canada have joined to fight Qatar’s bid to buy ICAO from Montreal.

Harper, not known for being particularly trade-union-friendly, has also secured the valuable support of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (“ITF”) and the International Trade Union Confederation (“ITUC”).

Both international unions are shocked and outraged that the UN would contemplate moving its headquarters to a country where there is a disturbing lack of democratic rights and workers’ rights.

Commenting on a possible move to Qatar, ITF general secretary David Cockroftangrily stated, “This defies belief. ICAO is the lead body for civil aviation across the world. How can an organization that has to defend the rights and safety of workers and passengers be moved to a state whose citizens’ pleas for democracy are answered with batons and buckshot?”

ITF President Paddy Crumlin added, “The UN cannot bend to the power of the Riyal at a time when ordinary Qataris’ fights for rights are met with massive repression. It’s doubly outrageous when thousands of staff at Qatar Airways are denied the fundamental right to union membership enshrined by the UN.”

ITUC general secretary Sharan Burrow argued: “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 Organization, a sister body of the ICAO, simply don’t apply. No foreign employee, whether a cleaner or a football star, is allowed to quit Qatar unless their employer allows them to.”

Note that Qatar is an absolute monarchy with about 250,000 citizens and over 1.2 million foreign workers who do most of the work there.

The above trade union leaders are referring to the fact that foreign workers in Qatar are treated as indentured slaves. Upon arrival, their passports are held by their employers. They have no freedoms. No democratic rights. No protections as workers or as humans.

They are terribly underpaid, underfed, and overworked. They live in overcrowded premises. Their lives are entirely controlled by their employers. And they are not allowed to do anything, including leaving Qatar, without the consent of their employers.

Not exactly a Workers’ Paradise.

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