A company in the United Arab Emirates is poised to take over significant operations at six American ports as part of a corporate sale, leaving a country with ties to the September 11 hijackers with influence over a maritime industry considered vulnerable to terrorism.
The Bush administration considers the UAE an important ally in the fight against terrorism since the suicide hijackings and is not objecting to Dubai Ports World’s purchase of London-based Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co.
The $6.8 billion sale is expected to be approved tomorrow. The British company is the fourth-largest ports company in the world, and its sale would affect commercial U.S. port operations in Baltimore, Miami, New Jersey, New Orleans, New York and Philadelphia.
DP World said it won approval from a secretive U.S. government panel that considers security risks of foreign companies buying or investing in American industry.
The U.S. Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States “thoroughly reviewed the potential transaction and concluded they had no objection,” the company said in a statement to the Associated Press.
The committee earlier agreed to consider concerns about the deal as expressed by a Miami-based company, Eller & Co., according to Eller’s attorney, Michael Kreitzer. Eller is a business partner with the British shipping giant, but was not in the running to buy the ports company.
The committee, which could have recommended that President Bush block the purchase, includes representatives from the Treasury, Defense, Justice, Commerce, State and Homeland Security departments.
The State Department describes the UAE as a vital partner in the fight against terrorism. But the UAE, a loose federation of seven emirates on the Saudi Peninsula, was an important operational and financial base for the hijackers who carried out the attacks against New York and Washington, the FBI concluded.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a Democrat whose district includes the New York port, urged the administration to consider the sale carefully.
“America’s busiest ports are vital to our economy and to the international economy, and that is why they remain top terrorist targets,” Mr. Schumer said. “Just as we would not outsource military operations or law-enforcement duties, we should be very careful before we outsource such sensitive homeland security duties.”
Shipping specialists noted that many of the world’s largest port companies are not based in the United States, and they pointed to DP World’s strong economic interest in operating ports securely and efficiently.
“Does this pose a national security risk? I think that’s pushing the envelope,” said Stephen E. Flynn, who studies maritime security at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations. “It’s not impossible to imagine one could develop an internal conspiracy, but I’d have to assign it a very low probability.”
Changing management over the U.S. ports “doesn’t offer al Qaeda any opportunities it doesn’t have now,” said James Lewis, who worked with the U.S. committee at the State and Commerce departments. “It’s in Dubai’s interest to make sure this runs well. There is strong economic incentive to be sure these worries never materialize.”
Since the September 11 attacks, the FBI has said the money for the strikes was transferred to the hijackers primarily through the UAE’s banking system, and much of the operational planning for the attacks took place inside the UAE.
Many of the hijackers traveled to the United States through the UAE. Also, the hijacker who steered a United Airlines flight into the World Trade Center’s South Tower, Marwan al-Shehhi, was born in the UAE.
After the attacks, U.S. Treasury Department officials complained about a lack of cooperation by the UAE and other Arab countries trying to track Osama bin Laden’s bank accounts.