Dubai Ports World Gets Specific About Its Plans

Dubai Ports World says it will sell all of its operations at U.S. ports to an "unrelated" U.S. buyer in the next four to six months. Previously, the company had said only that it would transfer its operations to a U.S. entity, a phrasing that proved too ambiguous for many in Congress.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. Dubai Ports World got more specific today about how it will sell its U.S. operations. The company said it will sell its U.S. holdings to a "unrelated U.S. buyer" and that it will do so in the next four to six months. The key word here is sell. Earlier the company said only that it would transfer its operations to a U.S. entity, phrasing that was too ambiguous for many in Congress. So lawmakers are pushing legislation to, at a minimum, prohibit Dubai Ports from managing terminals in the U.S. NPR's Brian Naylor has this report.

BRIAN NAYLOR reporting:

Faced with continued skepticism from members of Congress, officials of Dubai Ports World sought today to set the record straight. Steven Edwards is chief operating officer of P and O Ports, the previously British-owned firm that Dubai Ports World acquired in the $6.8 billion deal.

Mr. STEVEN EDWARDS (Chief operating officer, P and O Ports): We are making it clear to Congress and the Senate that this will be a properly conducted sale process, and also that the business will be sold in its entirety to an American buyer.

NAYLOR: The American port facilities Dubai Ports World acquired are estimated to be worth some $700 million. Edwards says he thinks it shouldn't be hard to find a buyer.

Mr. EDWARDS: We are quite clear that it's an attractive business. We've had a number of parties who've expressed significant interest. We are confident that we will receive good offers and the business will be sold as a whole.

NAYLOR: The company says that until the sale is completed, the U.S. ports will be operated independently from DP World. All this came as music to the ears of many in Congress who have vehemently opposed DP World's takeover of the port facilities on national security grounds. Among them is Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York.

Senator CHARLES SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): If it's full divestiture, that's just what we wanted, and it would obviate the need for legislation. Now, obviously, you have to look at the details. But this statement seems far more forthcoming and complete than the previous statement did. So it gives me real cause for optimism.

NAYLOR: Another critic, Republican Congressman Mark Foley of Florida, remained somewhat more skeptical.

Representative MARK FOLEY (Republican, Florida): Again, we want to look at the level of detail. Is this a real sale or is it a shell corporation? Is it American owned and operated and managed company, or is it a Post Office Box in Baltimore? The level of detail we await remains to be seen, and it's good news if it's, as they say, a transference to an American operation.

NAYLOR: While lawmakers cited national security, politics were never far from the surface. An amendment blocking the sale of the U.S. facilities was attached to a spending bill funding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and hurricane relief. That measure is expected to be approved by the House tomorrow, with the language blocking the ports deal intact. House Majority Leader John Boehner said Congress wants to make clear the sale of the American port facilities to Dubai Ports World is, as he put it, dead. The ports deal also prompted legislation addressing everything from funding for port security to reforming the process by which the sale was originally cleared. Republican Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota has sponsored a measure to bar companies owned by foreign governments from owning American ports and other critical infrastructure.

Senator NORM COLEMAN (Republican, Minnesota): I think there's still the larger issue of how do we deal with foreign ownership which we still have? We have that on the west coast, I think three owned by Singapore and one by China. So I think we still have to address the issue.

NAYLOR: Questions about the Dubai Ports World sale remain as well, including what the company will do if it thinks the bids it receives for the U.S. operations are too low. As Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter of California, another critic of the original deal, put it, it's not over 'til it's over.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.

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