Arab-owned American ports?

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Some of the country’s busiest ports — New York, New Jersey, Baltimore and three others — are about to become the property of the United Arab Emirates. Do we really want our major ports in the hands of an Arab country where al Qaeda recruits, travels and wires money?

The U.S. Committee on Foreign Investment, a Treasury Department-dominated group which reviews foreign investments, allows such purchases. The committee approved a $6.8 billion transaction between the ports’ current British owners and Dubai Ports World, a government-owned United Arab Emirates firm. The United Arab Emirates was home to Marwan al-Shehhi, a September 11 hijacker; the country is a transit point for al Qaeda, including several other September 11 hijackers; al Qaeda’s financing activities have involved the UAE; al Qaeda finds sympathizers there with ease, as it does in other Arab countries.

The Bush administration calls the United Arab Emirates an ally in the war on terror. But the UAE plays the same game Saudi Arabia does of quelching terrorists at home and turning a blind eye everywhere else.

It would be easy to caricature this sale: The purchase doesn’t entail young Arab firebrands replacing longshoremen, nor would it displace American ownership. The storied British firm that currently owns them, the Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Co., probably isn’t much better equipped against terrorist infiltration than Dubai Ports World. But then, the poor state of port security is precisely the point.

We should be improving port security in an age of terrorism, not outsourcing decisions to the highest bidder. The ports are thought to be the country’s weakest homeland-security link, with good reason. Only a fraction of the nation’s maritime cargoes are inspected.

This deal appears to be all about money. Dubai Ports World is “a business and its money is the same color as everyone else’s, only it’s got more of it,” one banker told the Baltimore Sun. Where does the money come from? As a private company, Dubai Ports World’s claim of 20 percent annual growth since 2001 is all but unverifiable, and its inner workings opaque. For all we know, Dubai Ports World is an undeclared arm of a foreign government.

The root question is this: Why should the United States have to gamble its port security on whether a subsidiary of the government of the United Arab Emirates happens to remain an antiterrorism ally?

The Committee on Foreign Investment is the wrong place for this decision to be made; it appears to be little more than a rubber stamp.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, New York Democrat, among others, is asking tough questions about this deal. For once, we agree with him: President Bush should overrule the committee to reject this deal. If that doesn’t happen, Congress should take action. The country’s ports should not be owned by foreign governments; much less governments whose territories are favored by al Qaeda.

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