VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - Canada and Qatar have signed an air services agreement that will allow direct scheduled flights between the two countries for the first time, Canadian officials said on Monday.
The deal, which was signed on October 28, comes amid an escalating months-long dispute between Canada and Qatar's neighbor, the United Arab Emirates, over expanded aircraft landing rights.
"This agreement responds to the needs of the Canada-Qatar travel market and is a first but important step in developing Canada-Qatar air relations," John Babcock, a spokesman for Canadian Transport Minister Chuck Strahl said.
The agreement between Canada and the small Gulf state of 1.3 million people provides for up to three direct passenger flights a week as well as three direct cargo flights between the two countries, Babcock said in an emailed statement.
"We must manage a strong international demand for access to the Canadian market. The new agreement with Qatar is in the best interest of Canadians," Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Melissa Lantsman said in an email.
She said the agreement was not related to any other negotiations.
The pact comes at a time of rising tension between Canada and the UAE, whose flagship carrier Emirates has been fiercely lobbying Ottawa to allow it to expand its three-day-a-week Dubai-Toronto service. It also wants to fly to Calgary and Vancouver. Abu Dhabi's Etihad Airways also wants to increase its flights.
Ottawa has so far not agreed to the requests.
The diplomatic stand-off escalated last month when the UAE ordered Canada to vacate a military base near Dubai which was used as a staging post for Canadian forces in Afghanistan.
Last week a UAE official said Canadian citizens would need visas to enter any of the seven emirates from January 2. Canada was previously one of more than 30 countries, mostly Western, that benefited from a visa waiver.
UAE's efforts to gain more landing rights in Canada have been fiercely criticized by Air Canada, the country's biggest carrier. It has accused the Mideast airlines of wanting to steal away connecting passengers that help make its routes profitable.
Separately, the Canadian Labor Congress said on Monday that allowing a foreign carrier like Emirates to take some of the most profitable connection traffic could hurt Air Canada's ability to maintain its domestic service, threatening jobs.
The congress is an umbrella organization for dozens of unions and represents some 3.2 million Canadian workers.
Reporting by Nicole Mordant in Vancouver, Louise Egan in Ottawa and Regan Doherty in Doha; editing by Rob Wilson