- The Washington Times - Monday, February 27, 2006

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — It has been a tough week for Essam al Tamimi. One of this Persian Gulf city’s most pro-U.S. business leaders, he says he has been questioning his admiration for America since Dubai’s bid to manage six U.S. ports ignited a firestorm in Washington.

“What’s happening in the United States is disappointing for people like me,” said Mr. al Tamimi, founder and managing partner of the United Arab Emirates’ largest law firm, Al Tamimi & Co.

Businessmen, government officials and other residents of Dubai have experienced bewilderment and disbelief as they watched the U.S. reaction to the ports takeover by the state-owned company DP World, the Dubai-based ports operator.

Their reaction reflectsthe city’s decades-long search for an identity, inevitably influenced by its Middle East location and Muslim traditions, but also by ambitions to become a free-market economy that attracts the West’s wealthiest investors.

“I have a U.S. mentality. I was educated in the United States,” said Mr. al Tamimi, who spent 18 months at Harvard Law School, ending in 1984. “I have a home in Idaho and spend most of my vacations in America.”

But he said he had never expected the passions exhibited last week in Washington and the six cities whose ports may soon be managed by DPW — New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New Orleans, Miami and Newark, N.J.

“It has changed my mentality,” he said in his office on the 29th floor of Dubai’s World Trade Center tower.

“We can build bridges between East and West by having bilateral businesses and common interests,” he said. “By isolating this part of the world and pushing us in the corner, how do the Americans think things can change? By magic? I never talked like this before.”

Ahmed al Banna, a businessman who owns several companies, said DPW’s takeover of the British company P&O;, which currently manages the ports, is a “fair business deal” and should go ahead.

“It’s unfair to see … that political issues might prevent an actual business transaction,” he said. “The Bush administration should have known the political consequences better.”

Executives at DPW tried to be more understanding about America’s fear of another terrorist attack.

“If this were happening to me as an American citizen, I’d think the same,” said one executive at DPW’s Jebel Ali port in Dubai, who asked not to be identified. “Of course they are concerned about their country; they have had unfortunate incidents.”

The Bush administration has backed the decision of a 12-agency committee to approve the deal. Denying the contract to a Middle East firm, Mr. Bush said last week, would send the wrong signal to the region. He also said that the United Arab Emirates is a good ally and staunch partner against terrorism.

Mr. al Tamimi said the administration’s support for the deal may actually help America’s image in the Arab world. But he said it would be difficult for him to represent U.S. companies in Dubai if the deal is killed.

“I’ve been very energetic when a U.S. company comes to me and says, ‘This is happening, run to the minister.’ I’d go and bang my hands on the table and say, ‘How could you do this to an American company and protect locals?’ How do you expect me to continue doing this?” he said.

Dubai’s economic success is obvious as soon as one flies into its airport and drives along its modern highways, passing glitzy hotels and architecturally diverse skyscrapers. Both investors and tourists have been flocking to the city.

“They view themselves very much as a hub between East and West, as a logistics center of high-quality ports services and transportation infrastructure,” said Justin Connor, an American lawyer working at Mr. al Tamimi’s firm.

“In many ways, Dubai sees itself as the Singapore of the Middle East,” Mr. Connor said. “They have staked the wealth of their nations on the same businesses and economic structure. They are both free-market places but with a high degree of government intervention.”

Dubai joined the game a couple of decades after Singapore but has been catching up. A state-owned Singapore company was Dubai’s chief rival in the bidding war to take over P&O; for an eventual price of $6.8 billion.

“There was some controversy about the price,” Mr. Connor said. “There was a sense that Dubai’s pockets are too deep, and if it really wants this, it’ll have it.”

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