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The ports deal paradox: Give the UAE a break!

Matein Khalid
Filed on March 10, 2006

IT IS surely a paradox that the United States, the champion of free markets and the globalist ethos, snubs a takeover deal linked to the UAE, its staunchest ally in the Middle East and a state whose very social DNA suffuses its openness to foreign business, people and, above all, ideas.

If any city defines globalisation in the bigoted, paranoid post-9/11 world, where even religion and culture are existential weapons of war in the latest East-West schism, it is Dubai. Dubai is home to DP World and 160 nationalities, it is the Arabian Monaco, Geneva and Hong Kong (pre-97 to be sure) , a symbol of laissez faire capitalism steeped in its historical affection for Britain and America, an emirate unlike any other on earth. Yet, it is the same Dubai and the UAE that is now being slammed by wolf packs of powerful Arab bashers and assorted Islamophobes all piously wrapped up in the Stars and Stripes, howling Armageddon in the American media and Congress.

The media circus in Washington and New York has nothing to do with US national security and derives from the political preening and posturing needed to get prime TV coverage for elections, Nielsen ratings and Presidential nominations. Democracy and freedom for the Middle East are platitudes I have heard every American President mouth since Richard Nixon in my life. Yet these same champions of Jeffersonian bombast all willingly financed Israel's Biblical retribution against the Palestinians, surely one of history's greatest crimes of ethnic cleansing funded by Uncle Sam’s tax dollars and high-tech military hardware. Cluster bombs, napalm, battle tanks, F-16 warplanes, Hellfire missiles, Patriot batteries. All made in America and deployed by Israel to shed Arab blood. So much for freedom. Democracy? Funnily enough, a non-issue ever since America took over Britannia's imperial white man burden in East of Suez in the late 1940s and midwived Israel’s birth in the process. Just look at a roll call of America's friendly dictators in the Islamic world, the ultimate geopolitical poodles of the White House.

It is only rational that the White House and the NSC debate the security implications of the DP World deal. Yet the UAE has done its best to reassure American fears, a policy response, which is both pragmatic and laudable. Besides, DP World will not handle port security in Philly or the Big Easy, the US Customs and Coast Guard will. All-American longshoremen and stevedores will move containers and forklifts. The White House has vetted and approved this deal. So why the xenophobic flap, reminiscent of the orchestrated ‘Yellow Peril’ public hysteria against Red China in the 1950s and the anti-Japanese bigotry during Dai-Nippon’s ill-fated Stateside property buying spree in the 1980s — Protectionists, Mafiosi, Teamster unionists, local political machine bosses in the East Coast, neocon hawks allied to the Israeli lobby on Capitol Hill have suddenly emerged from the woodwork to rail against Dubai's P and O deal. The ballast of reason, the imperative to present evidence before accusation, is shed overboard amid a storm of anti-Dubai hysteria unleashed in the media. If Dubai, of all places, can be so maligned by America's Islamophobes, what hope is there for any other state in the Islamic sovereign constellation to pass the new post-9/11 Yankee sniff test of moderation? As the Shah, Sadat, and the Lebanese Christians found out the hard way, the only worst thing than being America's enemy in the Middle East is to be America's friend. This is the surreal nightmare of post-9/11 international relations. Josef Goebbels was so right. A lie repeated often enough eventually becomes the truth.

The UAE has constantly bailed American chestnuts out of the fire in the ‘war on terror’. It broke diplomatic relations with the Taleban immediately after 9/11. Its central bank spearheaded the global campaign against money-laundering and anti-terrorist finance in Gulf banking. Its armed forces are among the most reliable buyers of American high-tech weapons. Its airbases host fuelling and surveillance flights of the USAF. Its deep-water ports and dry docks, big enough for aircraft carriers, are mission critical to the US security calculus in the GCC. Its foreign aid budget dwarfs any other state on earth. It has assisted America in Iraqi security training, in peacekeeping missions from Bosnia to Lebanon. Its petrodollar billions are largely invested on Wall Street.

Ironically, the US should subcontract its own airport security to Dubai. After all, more US naval ships call on Jebel Ali than any other port in the world and DXB is one of the safest, fastest growing and hippest airports on the planet. Not exactly shabby mafia-infested joints like JFK or La Guardia as I remember them.

The DP World bombshell is bound to send shock waves through the nervous system of the Arab moneyed elite. Has America, where the best and brightest of the Gulf's investors and bankers once learnt the money game, now turned its back to Arab investment? Is Arab money irrevocably tainted on Wall Street? Is there more political risk for Arabs owning shares or property in the US than in a Third World banana republic? Was the historic Gulf superrich elite's love affair with America a cruel mirage that is now lost forever? Will we witness the dawn of the petro-yuan and the petro-rupee as Gulf investments follow the ghost of Ibn Batuta to the eastern kingdoms beyond the monsoon winds?

We need to heal the wounds of civilisation inflicted by the 9/11 terrorists, not inflame them. A superpower cannot afford the luxury of racist poison spread by political troglodytes with a partisan axe to grind.

Hilariously, if America's anti-Bush national security vigilantes are anti-foreign interest in US ports, they ignored the nationality of Britain's P and O and Hong Kong's Hutchinson Whampoa. Hilary Clinton as the new flag waving Joan of Arc of US port security? Oh please! Whose spousal regime allowed Chinese spies to buy US national security secrets for the right price?

Double paradox. Whose husband earns $100,000 a pop giving speeches to graduating coeds in the UAE? But the triple paradox takes the cake. China, an emerging superpower, whose military challenges American supremacy on the Pacific Basin, is allowed to operate ports on the West Coast and Miami. But Dubai, an emirate which has never gone to war with anyone, is pilloried. Who is kidding whom?

This anti-Dubai venom is about race, religion and prejudice, not ports, security and politics. After all, China's PLA openly sells arms to North Korea, Iran, Saddam's Iraq, Cuba. Its nuclear missiles threaten LA and San Francisco, ports Chinese firms happens to manage as well. Yet it was all hunky dory in Washington when the Chinese came shopping for port deals in California during the Clinton era. The UAE sells arms to nobody, sells only the oil and gas that is the lifeblood of the Western industrial colossus. If America torpedoes the DP World deal, it will be worse than a crime. It will be a blunder of historic dimensions. It will strip bare our illusion that an Arab, a Muslim, can ever be a friend of America again. That illusion is priceless but, ultimately, valuable to America, not the UAE.

Matein Khalid is a Dubai based investment banker




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