Dubai Reacts to Ports Deal Controversy

The controversy over the takeover of operations at some U.S. ports by the state-owned Dubai Ports World has made few headlines in Dubai. In private, business and political leaders in the sheikdom say it smacks of racism and hypocrisy, and may discourage future investment in the United States.

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President Bush defended a deal over U.S. seaports by issuing a warning last week. He said if security concerns stopped a Dubai company from taking over some port operations that would send a "terrible signal to friends and allies".

Now the deal is being reviewed, and NPR's Ivan Watson reports on the reaction in Dubai.

IVAN WATSON reporting:

For the last week, a business deal involving Dubai, the flashiest of the United Arab Emirates' seven Sheikhdoms has been at the center of a political firestorm in the U.S. But you'd be hard-pressed to learn that from the local media here.

On the English language radio stations, you can get live updates from the Dubai duty-free tennis open...

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: ...but we'll just stay with this game and watch the final point.

(Soundbite of tennis players)

WATSON: But there is virtually no mention of the port controversy. It doesn't even make the front page of the local newspaper.

Meanwhile, at the city's newest and glitziest mall, where some of the millions of foreign tourists who travel to Dubai each year can ski down a giant man-made mountain, natives like Emeriti businessman Hamad Suiate(ph), are loathe to comment on the issue.

Mr. HAMAD SUIATE (Businessman): (Foreign spoken)

WATSON: Keep me away from politics, he said.

Mr. YOUSSEF IBRAHIM (Journalist, Dubai): This is a controversial issue, so they've really shrunk away from it.

WATSON: Youssef Ibrahim, a veteran Middle East journalist based in Dubai says the American port dispute challenges what he calls the founding principle of this wealthy city-state, which is, make money, not politics.

Mr. IBRAHIM: Within the service, of course, they were quite shocked when the initial rejection came from the congress and the senate and quite surprised about the fuss. They are not used to it, being met with this kind of resistance.

Her Excellency SHEIKHA LUBNA AL QASIMI (Minister of economy, United Arab Emirates): My surprise was basically the misinformation.

WATSON: The minister of economy for the United Arab Emirates is Her Excellency Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, a California-educated IT specialist. She says her government has tried to avoid an emotional response, instead, viewing this as just another business deal.

Her Excellency QASIMI: The deal is not about replacing Americans. The deal is not about taking over security. The deal is all about purely managing a port.

WATSON: The deal involves taking over American port terminals which are already run by a British company. Sulaiman al-Hattlan, the Saudi-born editor of the magazine Forbes Arabia, says the objections by some lawmakers to Arab, but not to British, management sound racist. He says the uproar will make local businessmen think twice about future investments in the U.S.

Mr. SULAIMAN AL-HATTLAN (Editor-in-chief, Forbes Arabia): We took it for granted that our companies here in the region could go anywhere in the world and invest. The reaction in the United States made people wonder and question the legitimacy of Americans promotion of globalization since early 1990s.

WATSON: Some Emirates officials bristle at those American lawmakers who have called the UAE a rogue state and a sponsor of terrorism. After all, American Air Force planes currently conduct refueling and surveillance flights from a base in the UAE to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Youssef Alitaba(ph) is the Director of International Affairs for the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. He says the Emirates is an important American ally in a turbulent region, as well as a popular destination for American troops on rest and relaxation from Iraq.

Mr. YOUSSEF ALITABA (Director of International Affairs for the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi): Today the UAW is the single largest recipient of US Navy port calls of any place in the world outside the United States.

We have had up to 580 port calls by the U.S. Navy in 2003, of vessels reaching up to the size of a nuclear powered aircraft carriers.

WATSON: Critics say the UAE was one of only three countries in the world to recognize the Taliban when it ruled Afghanistan. In response, Alitaba said his government was the first to sever ties with the Taliban after the September 11th attacks, following consultation with Washington.

But he concedes that when it came to this port deal, the Emirates focused too much on business and not enough on politics.

Mr. ALITABA: It's our responsibility to engage our friends on the hill and explain to them what we as the United Arab Emirates do to help cooperate with our friends and allies.

WATSON: It may already be too late. According to a recent CBS news pole, 7 out of 10 Americans say the Dubai company should not be allowed to operate American ports.

Ivan Watson, NPR News, Dubai.

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