The United Arab Emirates has become what the Bush administration calls a reliable partner in the war against Islamic terrorists, but its rulers maintained close ties to Osama bin Laden before September 11, and the cities of Abu Dhabi and Dubai have since served as operations and financial bases for al Qaeda terrorists.
But the United Arab Emirates, the most Western of Persian Gulf nations, also has become the United States’ closest military ally in the region. Its ruling emirs permit Navy warships to dock in the bustling commercial center of Dubai on lengthy liberty calls. It also hosts U.S. Air Force warplanes, refueling jets and spy planes at the sprawling Al Dhafra air base near Abu Dhabi. The base sits across the gulf from U.S. adversary Iran.
During the Clinton administration, the United States even considered killing bin Laden when he was on a hunting expedition but did not because one of his hunting partners was one of the United Arab Emirates’ emirs.
“They have been helpful and supportive and a good partner in the fight against terrorism,” said a U.S. counterterrorism official.
It is these two faces of the Arab nation — a one-time sympathizer of al Qaeda, yet strong post-September 11 U.S. partner — that Washington is considering in the debate over the Bush administration’s proposal to let United Arab Emirates company Dubai Ports World run six large U.S. seaports.
The U.S. September 11 commission’s report is replete with accounts of some of the 19 hijackers — two of whom came from the United Arab Emirates — using Dubai’s permissive banking system and lax passport certification to gain entry into the United States and bankroll a mission that killed more than 3,000 people.
During bin Laden’s stay in Afghanistan — where he built terror training camps, a personal army and a financial network — some of the United Arab Emirates’ upper crust, known as emirs, visited him. The United Arab Emirates was one of only a handful of countries that recognized the harsh Taliban regime, bin Laden’s protector.
In 1999, bin Laden spent time in the Afghan desert south of Kandahar near the Sheik Ali hunting camp. It was regularly used by visitors from the United Arab Emirates, according to the September 11 commission report. U.S. intelligence detected an official United Arab Emirates government airplane there on at least one occasion.
“According to reporting from the tribals, bin Laden regularly went from his adjacent camp to the larger camp where he visited the Emiratis,” according to the report.
In fact, the presence of the United Arab Emirates rulers at the camp gave the Clinton administration second thoughts about ordering an air strike to kill bin Laden, more than two years before the attack on the United States.
“According to CIA and defense officials, policy-makers were concerned about the danger that a strike would kill an Emirati prince or other senior officials who might be with bin Laden or close by,” the commission said. The Clinton administration was so concerned about the emirates’ cozy ties to bin Laden that one official called a United Arab Emirates political leader to complain.
Weeks later, the camp was dismantled, and bin Laden disappeared. The implication was clear: Someone in the United Arab Emirates tipped off bin Laden, the United States’ most-wanted fugitive, who then was planning the September 11 attacks.
“The United Arab Emirates was becoming both a valued counterterrorism ally of the United States and a persistent counterterrorism problem” the commission wrote. It said President Clinton personally pressed United Arab Emirates leaders to break financial and travel ties with the Taliban, but they refused.
Hamdan bin Zayid, United Arab Emirates foreign minister, told a U.S. diplomat that his country maintains relations with the Taliban to counterbalance “Iranian dangers.”
Those dangers are one reason that the United Arab Emirates stands as the United States’ best military ally in the Gulf, opening key parts of its country for U.S. operations.