Dubai Ports to Make Sale Official

Dubai Ports World has agreed to sell its American port operations to AIG Global Investment Group. Earlier this year, the Dubai-controlled company acquired the U.S. facilities when it bought another company. It was then forced to sell, due to fears that Arab ownership constituted an unacceptable security threat.

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Today, Dubai Ports World said that it's selling its U.S. port facilities to the insurance giant AIG for an undisclosed amount of money. The firm set off a heated controversy earlier this year when it purchased port facilities in six U.S. cities from a British company. Dubai Ports is owned by the sultan of Dubai.

As NPR's Jim Zarroli reminds us, there were worries that allowing the company to control some of these country's most vital ports would compromise U.S. security.

JIM ZARROLI: After the controversy erupted over the DP World deal last spring, the company reluctantly agreed to sell off the port facilities that had caused so much trouble. Finding a buyer took longer than expected. But today, DP World confirmed that the operations would be sold to the investment arm of American International Group. Mohammed Sharaf is chief executive of DP World.

MOHAMMED SHARAF: All I can say is that the price is right. We're satisfied with it. And we wish the best to AIG and the port management. We believe that they are very strong and competent management team there. And they can take this company forward.

ZARROLI: AIG is a deep pocketed company that will be able to invest in the upkeep of the ports. But it's likely they'll leave day-to-day running of the operations to the current management. The sale ends what is perhaps the most bitterly trade dispute of the post-9/11 world. Last February, DP World purchased a British company that controlled port facilities in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Miami, Tampa, and New Orleans.

The Bush administration approved the deal but the sale provoked an uproar in Congress and politicians from both parties attacked it. The controversy erupted after Florida-based Eller & Company, which partly operates the Port of Miami, went to court to try to stop the deal. Michael Kreitzer is an attorney for the company.

MICHAEL KREITZER: We were always troubled by the fact that a foreign government was our forced upon business partner and now, you know, we go into this optimistically hoping that AIG is the right business partner for us and that it would be a good marriage.

ZARROLI: New York Senator Charles Schumers said today's announcement was an appropriate final chapter to the Dubai Ports World deal and predicted the purchase would wing quick federal approval. But there were also many who saw the controversy as a kind of a nativist overreaction. Stephen Flynn, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says the dispute was a diversion from the more serious issue of what to do about port security after 9/11.

STEPHEN FLYNN: It's about do we have some real standards and do we have the means to effectively police those standards? That's what we should be talking about, not who basically owns the sign on the front of the terminal.

ZARROLI: Flynn credits the DP World deal with spotlighting the port security threat. As a result of the controversy, he says, Congress passed legislation this year that begins to address the problem but more needs to be done.

Ironically, DP World, which operates ports throughout the world, is working under the Department of Homeland Security on pilot programs to improve cargo screening in foreign ports. The company says it's hoping to maintain good relations with the U.S. government. Mohammed Sharaf says the company has been talking to U.S. officials and hopes to reestablish operations in the United States one day.

SHARAF: So we're looking forward to come back until such time we're allowed and we are welcomed. We will look forward growing our business elsewhere.

ZARROLI: In the current environment, he says, the company has no choice but to take its business and its money elsewhere.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York.

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