The worst-kept secret in the Persian Gulf

Originally at: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/ArticleNews/TPStory/LAC/20050521/SOFAMIRAGE21/TPInternational/Africa

The Canadian Forces base at Camp Mirage is having trouble staying under wraps
By PAUL KORING and BORZOU DARAGAHI
Saturday, May 21, 2005

WASHINGTON, DUBAI — Camp Mirage, the Canadian Forces forward logistics base in the Persian Gulf, is real.

Only the notion that it can be kept under wraps, cherished in some Ottawa quarters, is an illusion.

Officially, Camp Mirage is “somewhere in the Gulf region” and the location is “top secret” because Canada’s hosts have been assured it will not be disclosed.

“We do not say where we are out of respect for the host nation,” is the official line delivered by several Canadian Forces spokesmen. “We do not talk about the location of Camp Mirage.”

The policy supposedly applies to senior officers as well as junior ranks. But that did not stop a senior general from joking publicly about the location in a speech in Washington last year.

And while junior ranks caught with photographs identifying the location have been summarily shipped home from Camp Mirage, the general has been promoted.

Other senior officers have written letters, easily retrievable on the Internet, that make the location clear. Camp Mirage is on Minhad Air Force Base in the desert south of the glittering port city of Dubai, one of seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates.

The Canadian government’s own pay scale and living-allowance information include references to Minhad and the fact that Camp Mirage is in the UAE.

Senior army officers have publicly referred to Dubai as the base’s home. The Canadian Forces recently posted a set of pictures proudly proclaiming they had flown 3,000 sorties from Camp Mirage, although, in that instance, the location was not identified further.

On at least one occasion, the military had to scramble to recover and destroy a printed publication naming the site. “I’ll admit, we haven’t done a very good job of keeping this secret,” said a Defence Department senior official.

But he insisted that because of the base’s classified status, he could not discuss anything about the location or the nature of Canada’s arrangement with the UAE.

Officially, the Canadian military deployment to Afghanistan and its support base at Camp Mirage is described as “900 troops deployed on Operation Athena; about 700 are deployed in Kabul, the rest are deployed elsewhere in southwest Asia in support of the mission.”

Defence Department officials acknowledge that attempts to keep the location secret have nothing to do with operational security.

“This isn’t about the safety of our troops,” one said. “It’s about the sensitivity of the host country and its neighbours.”

The Foreign Affairs and Defence Departments say high-ranking Canadian officials gave even higher-ranking UAE officials a verbal undertaking not to talk about the deal or disclose the location.

But officials who have seen Canada-UAE agreements allowing the base to be set up said they do not contain a secrecy clause or an agreement not to disclose the location. They could not explain why the UAE would be nervous about the base.

Camp Mirage serves as a staging post and supply base for two Canadian military operations: a warship, when one is assigned to a U.S. battle group in the region, and the 700-member army contingent that is part of NATO’s stabilization force in Afghanistan.

HMCS Winnipeg is currently deployed in the Gulf, attached to a U.S. carrier battle group.

Camp Mirage was established in the fall of 2001, when Canada sent a squadron of warships to the region at Washington’s request after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. It grew to serve the army’s continuing deployments in Afghanistan. More than 200 are now based there.

The presence of Canadian and U.S. troops stationed at the base is well known at al-Awir, located between the Minhad air base and Dubai’s upscale horse stables.

Sideek, who runs the Al-Atheer grocery store on a strip of shops several kilometres from the base entrance, said the foreign troops sometimes drop in. “Both the Americans and the Canadians are very nice,” he said.

Canada’s troops, whether they are based at Camp Mirage or moving through the base during deployments or leaves, keep a low profile. They wear uniforms on the compound, but civilian clothes on the daily shopping trips that are arranged for them.

“We try not to attract too much attention,” a senior Canadian officer said. “It’s the polite thing to do as guests in a country that is sensitive about a foreign military.”

Dubai, with its soaring skyscrapers and, by Arabian Peninsula standards, wide-open lifestyle, seems an odd place to try to keep a secret.

It has worked hard to attract international business, building on a long history as a bustling trading centre and port.

Many international corporations have their Middle East headquarters in the city, which has eclipsed Beirut as a business centre and playground for wealthy Arabs.

A letter that appeared on the Internet last year is typical of the loose-lipped talk about the base. Dated June 30, it was sent by a Canadian lieutenant-colonel to Seven Seas Shipchandlers, a Dubai-based supply firm.

“On the eve of my departure, it behooves me to extend my sincere appreciation for the service and support extended to Camp Mirage,” wrote the officer, who was senior logistics officer at the base.

He credited “the extraordinary support provided by Seven Seas” with helping make Camp Mirage “among the top two dining facilities in terms of customer satisfaction in the Canadian Forces.”

The Dubai company’s efforts have “contributed significantly to the high esteem in which our dining facility is held by our personnel in Kabul and every other visitor to our camp,” he added.

This website is in support of keeping the name Persian Gulf.