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Bureaucratic blundering plagued UAE port deal

By Carol Devine-Molin
web posted February 27, 2006

Well, as journalist Liz Trotta noted on the Fox News Channel, the media is in full swing, and “the hunt for red meat is on.” With its continuing revelations, the “UAE port deal” still dominates the news. We now know that the Homeland Security Department did indeed balk initially at the United Arab Emirates company's proposed takeover of terminal operations at six US ports: New York-Newark, Philadelphia , Baltimore , Miami and New Orleans . That’s decidedly different from first reports that indicated Homeland Security had no problem with the acquisition of Britain’s Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company by state-owned Dubai Ports World (DP World), which would make it the second-largest operator in the global containership management industry. Homeland Security subsequently got onboard the deal only after Dubai Ports World agreed to comply with a set of security restrictions. However, with the current uproar raging and questions abounding, it would be best for Dubai Ports World and the original vetting process to be thoroughly examined at this juncture.

Homeland Security’s morphing reaction, and UAE’s checkered past with al-Qaida, certainly didn’t sit well with many Americans who are already aware of security gaps at our seaports, and fear sabotage by foreign entities that are sympathetic to radical Islam. Mind you, since 9/11, UAE has disavowed all terror ties, and has been an exemplary ally in this war on terror, providing vital intelligence, logistical support to our military, and fly-over capacity for our aircraft, which will definitely be useful if we ever conduct strikes on Iran . President Bush is in favor of the port deal since it helps maintain UAE as a significant ally and encourages other moderate Islamic states to work closely with the US . But the difficulty is this: It’s only been four and half years since that fateful day on 9/11 and the average American is still somewhat distrustful of UAE, the small Middle East nation that once spawned two of the 9/11 hijackers and funneled monies to the al-Qaida organization. Perhaps if a decade had elapsed, with the UAE constantly polishing its halo and helping us wage this war on terror, then the American populace would have been more accepting of a major port deal proffered by UAE.

Clearly, President Bush and his White House team were caught off guard by this emerging Dubai Ports World story and the controversy it generated. To all appearances, it seems that there’s been a communications breakdown between the White House and both the American people and the Congress that should have been informed of the pending transaction. Unfortunately, President Bush himself was in the dark about the deal-in-the-making until the press got wind of it and provided assiduous coverage. No doubt, if President Bush had been aware of DP World’s imminent takeover of port operations, he and his team would have gotten out ahead of the breaking news, spoken to the American people and responded to queries in efforts to promote transparency and allay fears. That would have been par for the course. But the Bush team was caught by surprise. People are now asking themselves: Where are the White House professional media handlers while this mess plays out? This has been nothing less than a political and public relations debacle for the Bush administration. But some political machinations are in the works by Congressional Republicans, which might be helpful in settling the issues surrounding DP World.

Undeniably, much of these bollixed circumstances can be attributed to the nature of our federal bureaucracy and the attending “secret” process for evaluating sensitive foreign investment deals. Often, it seems that even bigwig bureaucrats are devoid of political savvy and basic common sense. And one question that should be raised is this: Does the vetting process by the Committee on Foreign Investment really need to be held in virtual secrecy? In any event, the process certainly requires further scrutiny and revamping in this post-9/11 landscape. Perhaps only companies from the US or NATO nations should be considered for oversight of sensitive port operations in this nation. Moreover, something must be done about our government’s burgeoning bureaucracy. Homeland Security is particularly expansive and exhibits signs of being a cumbersome leviathan that can’t properly respond to events, whether it be assessing the Dubai Ports World deal, or handling the emergency situation posed by hurricane Katrina.

The Committee on Foreign Investment (CFIUS) is a twelve member interagency review panel – with representation from Homeland Security, the White House, Departments of Treasury, State, Justice, the CIA, etc. – that examines proposed transactions with national security implications. The specific review on the Dubai Ports World deal was reportedly truncated (we don’t know why), nor are we able to glean why red-flags concerning UAE were ignored, and the sensitivities of the American people given short-shift. As to the latter, the bureaucrats on the committee come across as a bunch of out-of-touch elitists who failed to properly consider that millions of Americans, especially those residing on the eastern seaboard between NYC and Washington DC, had been emotionally traumatized by the events of 9/11 that included mass deaths, carnage and mayhem. When a visceral “gut check” is made by an average American, he or she simply has difficulty trusting UAE control of our ports due to its past links with terrorists. And let’s be clear, if the Dubai Ports World deal goes through, the UAE company has a hand in its own security, and is expected to fully cooperate with safety and security matters conducted by the Coast Guard and US Customs, as well. The bureaucrats should have anticipated the uproar by the citizenry, which is still suffering the after-effects of 9/11 victimization. Clearly, several high profile New York politicians, such as Senator Hillary Clinton (D) and Representative Peter King (R), have tapped into this phenomenon, and are leading the charge on challenging the judgment that would have permitted a Dubai Ports World deal without proper investigation.

As to “red flags”, it’s disconcerting enough that Dubai is a hub of criminality, with bad players linked to money laundering and weapons smuggling. But worse yet, a few of the 9/11 hijackers came from UAE, which had previously aided the Taliban and al-Qaida, and permitted the AQ Kahn black market network to engage in the proliferation of nuclear components. One must also surmise that radical elements continue in Dubai , which still won’t recognize the state of Israel . According to UPI, “ Central to the debate is the fact that the United Arab Emirates, while a key ally of the United States in the Middle East, has had troubling ties to terrorist networks, according to the Sept. 11 Commission report. It was one of the few countries in the world that recognized the al-Qaida friendly Taliban government in Afghanistan ; al-Qaida funneled millions of dollars through the U.A.E. financial sector; and A.Q. Khan, the notorious Pakistani nuclear technology smuggler, used warehouses near the Dubai port as a key transit point for many of his shipments.”

Of course, UAE continues to insist that this was all pre-9/11 activity, and that they’ve changed their ways. That, as they say, remains to be seen.

According to Time magazine online, GOP politicians are attempting to maneuver so that Dubai Ports World can move forward with an acceptable deal. Republicans are “moving toward a deal that could allow President Bush and congressional GOP leaders to save face and avert a prolonged confrontation, GOP officials said today that they were discussing the idea of having Dubai Ports World seek a new review of its acquisition of a British company's operation that runs several key U.S. ports.” The UAE company is already in a voluntary hold pattern until things can be worked out. Time magazine further noted that “Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King, confirmed…that officials were close to a deal involving the Congressional leadership, the White House and the Dubai company. The agreement would call for a 45-day “CFIUS-plus investigation,” King said.”

The GOP might very well succeed in structuring a deal that will place even more security restrictions upon DP World, but will permit the deal to be approved. That being said, the UAE’s past ties with terrorists and radical elements make us all a little nervous, and necessitates close monitoring by the US.

Carol Devine-Molin is a regular contributor to several online magazines.


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