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U.S.: Critics Say Pending Ports Deal Is Far From Shipshape

Several members of the U.S. Congress are seeking to block the Dubai Ports World deal (epa) A state-owned business in the United Arab Emirates is buying a British-based company, P&O, that operates cargo terminals around the world, including along the East Coast of the United States. The Bush administration has already approved the pending $7 billion deal with Dubai Ports World, but many members of the U.S. Congress from both parties are upset. Two of the men who planned the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States were citizens of the United Arab Emirates, which has also been used as an operational and financial base for the attacks.

WASHINGTON, 22 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Top leaders from U.S. President George W. Bush's own Republican Party have condemned the deal. Both Senate Majority leader Bill Frist (Republican, Tennessee) and the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Dennis Hastert (Republican, Illinois), are calling on the White House to stop the transaction and review it.

Opposition Democrats are also fiercely opposed. Senator Charles Schumer (Democrat, New York).

"How could we turn over one of the most vital areas of homeland security to a company run by a country that has a nexus of involvement with terrorists? No one can understand it. No Democrat can understand it," Schumer said on 21 February. "No Republican can understand it. Average citizens everywhere we go are stopping us and saying, 'What is going on?' It's almost a symbol of a government not in control."

'The Government Has Looked Into This Issue'

Mayors and governors along the East Coast have also raised strong objections. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Republican, has asked that the deal be reviewed again, while Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Mally calls the sale "outrageous." Ports in New Jersey, New Orleans, Miami, and Philadelphia would also be affected.

"I can understand why some in Congress have raised questions about whether or not our country will be less secure as a result of this transaction," Bush told journalists outside the White House on 21 February. "But they need to know that our government has looked at this issue and looked at it carefully. Again, I repeat, if there was any question as to whether or not this country would be less safe as a result of the transaction, it wouldn't go forward."

Bush said Dubai Ports World has been "cooperative" with the United States government and noted that the company will not manage port security.

The British-based Peninsula and Oriental Steam Navigation Company -- better known as P&O -- has operated cargo terminals within U.S. ports for years, without eliciting any strong reaction. In fact, foreign companies operate more than 50 percent of terminals along America's East Coast.

Anti-Arab Sentiments?

"The U.A.E. is a good country, a good government, and this company is, as far as we can tell, reputable," said Michael O'Hanlon, a research fellow at the Brookings Institute in Washington, in a 21 February interview with Reuters. "But we're talking about the front line on the war on terror -- these ports in the United States. And I think the burden of proof should be squarely on the shoulders of those who want to support this sort of deal, rather than try to decide whether we want to impugn the integrity of the U.A.E. That's not the issue."

Joseph Kechichian is a consultant who specializes in the Persian Gulf region and the author of "A Century In Thirty Years," a history of the United Arab Emirates. He believes the uproar over foreign companies operating U.S. ports is being fueled by domestic politics and anti-Arab sentiment.

"There are, strangely enough, other companies that manage other ports throughout the country," Kechichian tells RFE/RL. "But they don't happen to be Arab companies. They happen to be Asian or European companies. So those are OK."

He says Dubai Ports World has insufficient manpower and expertise to manage the day-to-day operations of the six U.S. terminals operated by P&O.

"Although they are purchasing P&O, they are not firing the management of P&O," Kechichian says. "The management will stay in place. The dockworker in New York City right now who is unloading these ships is not going to be fired. It will be the same guy. They are not going to bring somebody from the U.A.E. and put him in New York."

U.A.E. A Reliable Partner Against Terror

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was asked about the furor over the U.A.E. deal at a press briefing on 21 February. Referring to the two 9/11 hijackers, Rumsfeld said a country cannot be held responsible for every one of its citizens, and noted the U.A.E. has been a reliable partner in the war on terrorism.

Bush expressed concern that canceling the transaction now would have damaging consequences for the United States abroad.

"I think it sends a terrible signal to friends around the world that it's OK for a company from one country to manage the port, but a country that plays by the rules and has got a good track record from another part of the world can't manage the port," Bush said.

Many lawmakers remain unconvinced. Schumer and Republican Congressman Peter King (New York), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, say they will push through emergency legislation to block the P&O transaction.