March 3, 2006
Great Risk in Humiliating a Reliable Arab Ally

By Richard Klein

A friend, usually most interested in a newspaper's business section, e-mailed his take on the Dubai Ports World issue and asked, "Is this the international equivalent of driving while black, only shipping while Arab?"

Though the ongoing debate is a complex intersection of foreign investment, homeland security and government secrecy issues, it is hard to ignore the suggestion of racial profiling or the wider implications for American policy in the Middle East.

After all, 80 percent of the ports in the United States are managed by foreign companies. A stevedorer partially owned by the Chinese government runs operations at Long Beach, Calif., the second- busiest port in the U.S., with little fanfare or concern. Other companies from Asia and Europe, some government-owned and many with huge Arab and Muslim communities and known jihadist cells, do the same on the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf coasts.

Yet for the past two weeks not just DP World but the entire United Arab Emirates have been labeled by some as terrorist sponsors, Taliban apologists and unreliable U.S. allies. This is just wrong, according to those who deal with the Emirates on military, intelligence and national security issues and know the country to be a solid partner in the war on terrorism.

So much so that Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda have turned their sights on the UAE, threatening the country specifically for maintaining a cooperative relationship with the U.S.

What started it all were inaccurate reports suggesting an Arab company "taking over" or "buying" ports in the United States. As part of a $6.8 billion acquisition of the London-based Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co., DP World will inherit contracts to manage cargo operations at ports in Brooklyn, Newark, New Orleans, Miami, Philadelphia and Baltimore.

Commercial arrangements, union contracts, relationships with port authorities, U.S. government- required security standards, U.S. Coast Guard oversight and the people running day-to-day operations at these ports will not change. Yes, two Sept. 11 hijackers were from the UAE. But lesser known is that when the Emirates government learned two of its own were part of the attack it committed troops to fight alongside American soldiers in Afghanistan.

No rationalizing about motives, no suggesting Israeli Mossad or CIA conspiracies, no avoiding responsibility. The UAE was the only Arab and Muslim country to stand shoulder to shoulder with the U.S -- a display all too rare in the Middle East.

The UAE is now hugely helpful in tracking terrorist funds, and intelligence officials confirm that Dubai serves as a waypoint from which the U.S. can more easily identify and understand who and what al Qaeda is deploying internationally.

When the Department of Homeland Security started the container security initiative to make sure cargo was reliably screened for radiological bombs, smuggled weapons or other terror threats, Dubai was the first foreign port to sign on. The country is a high traffic port of call for U.S. Navy ships, including aircraft carriers and submarines.

If we trust UAE ports to host our nuclear-powered vessels and we trust their cities with our sailors -- plus they enforce the highest cargo security measures set by the U.S. -- we should be able to trust them with basic port services like loading and unloading ships here.

In many ways, the UAE has emerged as just the kind of country the U.S. seeks to nurture in the Arab world -- religiously tolerant, economically open, balancing modern social and business forces with traditional Islamic values and lifestyles.

Politicians, perhaps reflecting what one conservative writer called "the dogs of anti-Arab prejudice" unleashed by a White House incessantly beating the war-on-terror drums, may have forgotten that the UAE is the closest to an ideal Arab partner the U.S. can rely on today and about as pro-American as you can get in the Arab world. If we cannot do business with the UAE, the U.S. has no real hope for any success among Muslim nations.

The love-hate relationship between the U.S. and the Arab world is sometimes summed up as half the people wanting to bomb American embassies and the other half wanting visas from them. Yet instead of holding up the UAE as a beacon of prosperity and diversity for more of the Middle East to emulate, the U.S. risks humiliating an ally and grouping tolerant Dubai with darker Islamic forces we hope to isolate or enlighten.

When a solid, reliable U.S. friend in the strategically important and politically volatile Middle East can't get fair, trusting treatment in Washington, there's no hope for winning the battle for the hearts, minds and future of the Arab world that we are now waging.

Richard Klein served in the U.S. Departments of State and Commerce and is now director for the Middle East and Arabian Gulf at Kissinger McLarty Associates in Washington.

Richard Klein

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