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Dubai Ports Debacle


The sudden decision by Dubai Ports World to turn over management to a U.S. entity last week ended a White House standoff with Congress. Follow that development, the state-owned company announced it would sell its key facilities to a U.S. buyer. Political opponents of the original deal, which would have allowed Dubai Ports World to manage six American ports, have called it a great victory in the war on terrorism. Dubai is part of the United Arab Emirates, or UAE, which some members of Congress viewed as having been a jumping off point for the 9/11 hijackers and which was also suspected as a site for terrorist money transfers.

But according to President Bush, the UAE is a strategically important country that hosts scores of visits by U.S. Navy ships each year, allows U.S. forces to use a major air base, and has become an important ally in the war on terror. President Bush said he is concerned about the broader message that the failure of the deal sends to Middle East allies, at a time the United States needs to strengthen its relations with moderate Arab states such as the UAE.

Saudi Arabia journalist Mohamed Al-Kharaji, who lives in London, said the political furor primarily benefits groups that have an interest in driving a wedge between the West and the Arab world. Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Mr. Al-Kharaji noted that it contributes to xenophobia and terrorism. Furthermore, he said that well-informed people realize that Dubai is “one of the most liberal cities in the world,” from both a business and a social perspective. And people in the region don’t understand why Dubai presents such a problem since so many U.S. companies are already involved in business deals there.

According to a Los Angeles Times poll, Americans opposed the Dubai ports deal by a greater than 3 to 1 margin. And congressional opposition reflected that public sentiment. But British journalist Ian Williams noted that the potential economic consequences of the failed port deal are unfortunate because the United States is already running the biggest trade deficit in history.

To Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy, a columnist for the London-based pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, the collapse of the Dubai ports deal represents both a public relations disaster and an attempt by politicians to score points in an election year. Kuwaiti economist Amer al-Tamimi, who is a regular columnist with al-Hayat newspaper, agreed. He said the failure of the deal sends a bad message to Arab investors, but he thinks it is symptomatic of a continuing emotional reaction to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which so traumatized many Americans. That - plus lax security at U.S. ports - have prevented many people from seeing clearly the benefits emphasized by President Bush and other supporters of the deal. For the foreseeable future, politicians are likely to continue to disagree about how to strike a balance among competing priorities – national security, economic and trade considerations, and public diplomacy.

To listen to all of the comments, click on the audio link above.