- The Washington Times - Monday, February 27, 2006

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Executives at Jebel Ali Port, the largest in the Middle East, see no shame in admitting that one of their goals, in a region known for its hostility to the United States, is to please the Americans.

Dubai-based U.S. customs officials have unfettered access to all cargo destined for the United States and are free to inspect any container whenever they please, a senior port executive said during a tour of Jebel Ali over the weekend.

“We gave them offices in our port at no cost,” he said, noting that the United Arab Emirates was the first Middle East country to participate in the Container Security Initiative, which the Bush administration started after September 11, 2001, to protect global trade from terrorism and other threats.

The U.S. military also has access. Ships anchor in a designated area not far from the port’s control tower, and no one can enter the facilities used to handle the vessels or get on board without the Americans’ authorization, another port official said.

There is even a separate floor in the control tower dedicated to the military’s needs, the official said. The Americans use it when they have arriving or departing ships, or whenever they want, and it stays locked at other times and nobody can open it.

It is hardly a secret that it is in the interest of Jebel Ali, located about 22 miles outside Dubai, and the state company that owns and operates it, DP World, that the Americans here receive the best treatment.

One of the region’s most prosperous cities, Dubai knows something about money and good customer service. But these days, it is particularly concerned about its image in the United States.

DP World’s successful $6.9 billion bid for the port operations of the British company Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co., which include six U.S. ports, has ignited a political firestorm in Washington.

Faced with worries about security, DP World, which is entirely owned by the emirate of Dubai, has agreed to delay its takeover of the management contracts of the ports in New York; Newark, N.J.; Baltimore; Philadelphia; New Orleans and Miami by 45 days to allow for a review by the U.S. government committee that approved the company’s application.

Asked whether there is anything the Americans have asked for and have not received, the senior executive replied with a quick “No.” U.S. officials agree.

“The United States military derives great benefit by having access to Port Jebel Ali’s large, secure, deep-water port for its operations, logistics support and service members’ R and R,” said Col. Brian R. Kerins, defense and air attache at the U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi, the UAE capital.

“During my three-year tour in the UAE, the working relationship between the U.S. military and the Port of Jebel Ali, at every level, has been efficient, professional and top rate,” he said.

Another embassy official noted that the UAE Air Warfare Center is the leading fighter training facility in the Middle East. The U.S. military also uses the port in Fujairah and the Dhafra Air base.

Jebel Ali, the world’s largest man-made harbor, was completed in 1979. At 64 square miles, it is the bigger and truly international of Dubai’s two ports, with Port Rashid handling mostly ships from the region, as well as cruise liners.

About 500 vessels arrive in Jebel Ali every month. There were 85 there yesterday. The senior executive said no security incidents have occurred to date.

He said that 12 percent of the almost 5,000 people working at Jebel Ali are UAE citizens. The rest come from around the world. It is typical for Persian Gulf countries to hire foreign workers, because most natives do not join the labor market.

Despite the need for effective public relations, DP World’s media strategy in Dubai was somewhat confusing.

Sarah Lockie, the company’s communications director, canceled an interview with the chairman, Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem, hours after it had been scheduled, saying in a midnight telephone call that the U.S. media is being handled by a “team” in Washington.

She also did not allow executives and other workers at the port to speak on the record.

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