UAE Port Deal Brings Charges of 'Islamophobia'

Patrick Goodenough | International Editor | Wednesday, February 22, 2006

UAE Port Deal Brings Charges of 'Islamophobia'

(CNSNews.com) - As the debate continues over a deal allowing a Dubai-based company to operate major American seaports, in the United Arab Emirates the dispute is being attributed variously to ignorance, election year posturing, and "Islamophobia."

Dubai Ports World's $6.8 billion acquisition of the British company PO will give the state-owned UAE firm oversight of the ports of New York, New Jersey, Baltimore, New Orleans, Miami and Philadelphia.

A number of Republican and Democratic lawmakers have voiced concern about the security implications of the deal, but President Bush said Tuesday he would veto any attempt by Congress to block it, and asked why a Middle Eastern company should be held to different standards than a British one.

Opponents of the deal argue that the Gulf state, while considered a U.S. ally, has a poor record on terrorism.

Two of the 19 terrorists who carried out the 9/11 attacks were from the UAE, including Marwan al Shehhi, named by the FBI as the hijacker who flew United Airlines flight 175 into the second World Trade Center tower.

"Many of the Sept. 11 hijackers and planners traveled through that country [the UAE], and its banking system was used in preparing for the attacks," the New York Times said in a recent editorial, while critics have also noted that the UAE was one of just three countries to recognize the Taliban regime when the al-Qaeda ally ruled most of Afghanistan.

It cut ties with the Taliban 11 days after 9/11, and annual State Department reports on terrorism since then have given the UAE glowing reports, praising it for cooperating with the 9/11 investigation, arresting terrorists, and condemning extremism in Islam.

The current criticism is viewed warily in the UAE, with commentators bristling at the notion that their country is soft on terrorism.

Writing in Gulf News, Rashed Saleh Al Oraimi, a columnist for the Al Ittihad newspaper, suggested that if the UAE's banking system comes in for criticism over 9/11, then so too should the U.S. banking system, airports and flight-training institutes.

Citing the NYT editorial, al Oraimi said Islamophobia was on the rise and was even showing its face in liberal media circles.

A poll conducted by Gulf News asked readers why they thought some members of Congress were against the Dubai Ports World deal.

Of the three options given, 25 percent of respondents chose "xenophobia," 32 percent said "security concerns," and 42 percent selected "jealousy."

A writer to the paper said a fourth reason should have been offered: "A mid-term election is due in the U.S. this year and politicians opposing the takeover may be posturing to appear 'tough' on security issues."

Security worry

Another UAE daily, the Khaleej Times, reported that Karen Hughes, the administration's undersecretary for public diplomacy, found herself explaining the way Americans operate while talking to reporters in Dubai on Monday.

"It is important to understand that in my country, there's a very open environment for debate and members of the Congress are always questioning, debating, discussing," she was quoted as saying, dismissing the charges of anti-Muslim sentiment.

"I don't believe Islamophobia is the case. What I have seen in quotes from our lawmakers are questions about security and concerns in line with the fact that a couple of the September 11 hijackers did come from the UAE."

Hughes told the reporters the deal had been approved after a "very thorough inter-agency review" led by Treasury Secretary John Snow.

A key factor in the debate has to do with exactly what role Dubai Ports World will play in providing security in U.S. ports, facilities that law enforcement experts have identified as prime targets for terrorist attack.

In his remarks Tuesday, Bush said the Arab company would not control port security.

But a bipartisan group of critics in Congress said earlier that "only five percent of containers entering our ports are actually inspected, with the rest in under the control of the port operator."

Apart from the cargo screening functions carried out by the Department of Homeland Security, the port operator is responsible for the port facility itself, the hiring of security personnel and securing cargo moving in and out of the port, the lawmakers said in a letter to Snow.

Letters sent to the Khaleej Times, and published on its website, questioned the security worry, with one reader saying: "It will be the Americans who will take care of their security, while those who have the expertise will do the rest of the jobs at the ports. This is an unalloyed fact."

Another letter writer said that even homeland security secretary Michael Chertoff "has made it abundantly clear that there is no security risk involved."

"That statement comes from the horse's own mouth. Who else is more competent to speak on this subject?"

Khaleej Times commentator Mohammed A.R. Galadari found one bright spot in the debate.

"Twenty years ago, when I talked to people there [in America], no one knew where Dubai or the UAE was," he wrote. "When I said it was in the Gulf, they asked me whether I meant the Gulf of Mexico?

"And, now everyone there wants to talk about Dubai and the UAE, courtesy the major takeover involving billions," Galadari said.

"It is a great testimony to the strengths that this city and the country have built for themselves over the past two decades."

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