U.S. political jockeying signals economic profiling

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U.S. political jockeying signals economic profiling

Published in the Daily Record and Herald News

Aref Assaf

Arguably, security of our nations’ points of entry is of paramount importance. However, the growing political jockeying to prevent an Arab owned company from operating the logistical areas of our seaports is nothing short of political pandering and specious grandstanding. Importantly, in a time of increased globalization, this posturing is, pure and simple, a form of economic profiling against Arabs- all Arabs. It would be hard to underestimate the potential economic and political fallouts from our xenophobia. I am afraid the Dubai-gate will now become the central litmus test for politicians on both sides of the political divide. The Arabs sadly will be the scapegoat even though the security we so desire to have will not be assured

Pivotal to the debate of the takeover by Dubai Port World, DWP, of six major US seaports are two deliberately camouflaged fallacies: One, that America’s security, both national and economic are negatively impacted by the presence of Arab-owned companies on our soil. Two, that the US is somehow ceding its sovereignty over an important national gateway.

It needs repeating that no port company determines or sets procedures for security in the US. The US government itself determines all security standards, sets strict guidelines for implementing them and determines appropriate penalties for violating them. US Customs officers will continue inspecting cargos, Coast Guard patrol the harbors, the Transportation Security Agency doing background checks of port employees, and the Department of Homeland Security monitoring port security efforts. All port owners, foreign or domestic companies, are obligated to operate the strict requirements of the 2002 Maritime Transportation Security Act, and the 2004 International Ship and Port Facility Security codes. It is often overlooked that even if DPW does not manage our ports, the US will still have to deal with it in many foreign seaports operated by DPW. In fact, a significant component of our container security and inspections mechanisms are implemented not in the US but in ports overseas.

On the second point, the deal is for management of the ports, that is using specialized cranes to load sealed containers off docked ships onto trucks and trains. It is not about the physical sale of the property. The land and shores on which these ports are located were never offered for sale and have always been the property of the American people. When we hear opportunistic politicians cry out that the Arabs are buying America, one either must laugh or accuse these pundits of deliberate misinformation to rally up anti-Arab sentiments. It needs to be stated also that DPW will only control 50% of the port’s operations. the rest being the responsibility of other foreign-owned corporations.

If port security is the full responsibility of our US government, then why such a frenzied obsession with who manages the loading and unloading of sealed containers at our ports?
The simple answer is the 9-11 backlash against everything Arab still permeates our political discourse. It is partly the result of  the collective memory of the attacks which is still too fresh to differentiate between 19 terrorists who irrevocably debased our sense of unhindered security and the vast majority of Arabs and Muslims who hold no ill feelings towards our country. If the argument is about a foreign company being government-owned, then it must be comforting to know that the U.A.E, of which Dubai is a part, is a strong ally of the United States and has worked closely with us in our fight against terrorism and our war in Iraq.

Enter Senator Menendez, (D-NJ). This DPW-gate is truly “God-Sent”, heralding him into national prominence. This newly found popularity could conceivably guarantee him another 6-year term in the Senate if he pursues the fear politics and appears to be co- shouldering the responsibility of a secure America with Republicans. While he has stated that his opposition is only based on that fact that DPW is owned by a foreign government not a private venture, here against the Senator is misinformed. The reality is that DPW is a corporation whose capital is held by a government entity known as the Dubai Ports, Customs and Free Zone Authority and whose management is composed of private and international executives- some of whom American citizens. It is this salient distinction which explains the facts the deal was not signed by representatives of the US government and the U.A.E. The deal was not between two sovereign nations.

Besides, if we do no trust the government of Dubai, why did the US continued to sell it the latest in armaments and ammunitions to the tune of $6.8 billion from 1997-2000 even though Dubai still had its embassy in Taliban’s Kabul?

Irrefutably, this post 911 jingoism and xenophobia is an overarching attempt to undermine the President’s already tough stand on security. Haven’t we been so loudly complaining that our President has forsaken the freedoms and liberties of our fellow citizens in his obsession with security? Is Menendez trying to outmaneuver our president by appearing more patriotic? Are we saying that the President and his Administration do not care about our national security? let’ s see the proofs.

Why not Dubai? Because two of the 9/11 hijackers happened to be from the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E), the country in which the company is based. Yet the British company, Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, was allowed to operate these ports despite Richard Reid’s ( “the shoe bomber”) British citizenship. In addition, American companies are permitted to operate some U.S. ports despite the fact that Timothy McVeigh, Jose Padilla, and other U.S. citizens are convicted or accused terrorists. This is a flagrant example of demagogy and hatemongering.

In fact, since two of the 9/11 hijackers were from the U.A.E, as such, Dubai Ports World might even have a greater interest in operating safe and secure ports than companies from other nations. If a terrorist incident occurred in one of its ports, the company would probably lose more business worldwide than a non-Arabic company would under similar conditions.

Members of Congress such as putative presidential candidate Senator Clinton is desperate to look tough on terrorism in her seemingly ever-failing attempts to capture political middle she needs to ascend to the presidency. While seeing past her actions to her political aims might be easy for many, understanding the unintended consequences of a successful blockage of the port sale might require a second look.

Take for instance Eller & Company, the Miami-based business formerly a partner of Peninsular, which has just filed a suit for being forced into an “involuntary” partnership with an Arab company. The suit raises the security canard, and one wonders what sort of economic interests the smear campaign is intended to mask. According to an Associated Press, “The lawsuit represents the earliest skirmish over lucrative contracts among the six major U.S. ports where Peninsular and Oriental runs major commercial operations…. ” This is not the first instance a corporate entity tried to take out the competition by raising a bogus threat to “national security.”
One wonders if the safe fuss would have created if another company with foreign governments won the bid to buy the Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation. This actually almost happened when another company, According to the International Herald Tribune, PSA International of Singapore gave up on its bid to buy the British company. Of note is the fact that PSA International is owned by state investment group Temasek.

But if Arab-owned companies truly cannot be trusted to operate U.S. ports, then shouldn’t they be banned from all business activity in the US? Why stop there! Even commercial airlines, mail, and oil from Arab countries should be banned from landing at U.S. ports.
In an age of increased globalization and immensely widespread multinational corporations where ownership is either difficult to discern or more importantly irrelevant to the conduct of their worldwide business activity, the issue of nationality is no longer applicable unless we are willing to endure its consequences. Are we then saying that Arab countries could prevent American companies from servicing the hugely lucrative American-made weaponry bought by Arab countries? Are Arabs justified then in boycotting American-made cars, equipment, and wheat because through these commodities, America may have undue influence or pose a security or environmental threat to these ‘rouge’ nations?

If the deal is nullified or obstructed, we will send a clear statement to the Arab world: America is xenophobic – Arabs need not apply to the modern world, If the President wins and the deal is accepted, we send the message that America responds positively to peaceful cooperation and our limitless and scornful wrath is only reserved for attacks on the rights that make such free trade available at all. Importantly, Regardless of the outcome, DPW will still operate other international ports and the US will still have to deal with this fact unless we are against everything Arab. If so, let us make the law of the land and hide behind half-hearted an insincere claims to the contrary.
The United States ought to appeal to the self-interests and common sense of Arab companies and people. Shared interests and shared fortunes with the Arab world will ultimately found mutual stimuli for security on both our shores and theirs.

As we push for global trade by striking long-term trade and security deals with most of the world, we are insanely denying the Arabs our friendship and trade. We now have two rules of conduct: One for the Arabs based on distrust and containment, the other for the rest of the world, based on the promotion of mutual trust, dignity and unhindered market forces.   I am a proud American citizen who now feels very scared.

Aref Assaf

1  U.S. Government Accountability Office, GAO-06-319r, January 2006.