reflections

Feb 21, 2006 | 10:13 GMT

4 mins read

Geopolitical Diary: The UAE and U.S. Ports

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
A British company with the quaint Victorian name of Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co. was purchased last week by Dubai Ports World, a company owned by the government of the United Arab Emirates, at a price topping $6 billion. From a geopolitical point of view, this is just another corporate acquisition, made interesting by the fact that it clearly involves a cash-flush oil producer that is diversifying its holdings. The story has one minor wrinkle, however. Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation is deeply involved in operating the ports of New York, New Jersey, Baltimore, New Orleans, Miami and Philadelphia. So, to put it differently, an Arab and Muslim country has taken control of key operations at some of the most important ports in the United States. As Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., put it, "The question that needs to be answered is whether or not they can be trusted to operate our ports in this post-9/11 world." The Bush administration's view, as expressed by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, is: "We make sure there are assurances in place, in general, sufficient to satisfy us that the deal is appropriate from a national security standpoint." The issue comes down to this. The UAE is an Arab and Muslim country. The government of the UAE is about as pro-American as you can get in that part of the world. Certainly, there are UAE citizens who are jihadists — one of the Sept. 11 hijackers, Marwan al-Shehi, was from the UAE. At the same time, the government has a security agreement with the United States, and extensive commercial relations tie the two together. The UAE tries to be a kind of Switzerland in the Middle East, focusing on business and trying to be the commercial gateway to the region. If the United States can't do business with the UAE, then the United States cannot do business anywhere in the Islamic world. The problem Washington faces is this: On the one hand, the administration has been criticized for having a simplistic, monochromatic view of Islam, and of making war against Islam in general. But on the other hand, when the administration draws distinctions between governments within the Muslim world, it gets hammered over threats to U.S. security. Somebody has got to straighten this out. Now, the problem might simply be that a UAE company will be managing the U.S. ports. That is not a trivial concern. But viewed another way, a British company previously was managing the ports, and there are plenty of jihadists traveling on British passports these days who are at least as dangerous as anyone in the UAE. It is not clear to us that these ports were any safer when operated by a British company than they would be under the UAE. If Washington rejects the UAE's ability to operate commercial concerns in the United States, then the question is going to be: Precisely what are the benefits of siding with the United States? The United States might draw a line saying that Muslim governments can do business with the United States but not control critical infrastructure. Nevertheless, two geopolitical questions remain. First, how does Washington reward countries that sided with the United States in the jihadist war? And second, if there are no rewards, what are the benefits of such alignment? There is no question that the UAE does not run a fully capable counterintelligence system. There are certainly jihadists who might slip into the operation. But no country runs a fully capable system, and jihadists could slip in anywhere. There is an argument to be made that in a time of war, the United States must limit its commercial relations with any Muslim country. If that is the policy, then someone should state it. If the U.S. strategy is divide the Muslim world and reward those who side with the United States with commercial relations, then state that. One way or another, a decision has to be made.

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