When Washington politicians protest the purchase of American port facilities by an Arab company, it is natural to suspect prejudice or protectionism or both. When normally supine Republicans such as Bill Frist and Peter King defy the Bush administration to join Democrats like Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles Schumer, the smell of election-year opportunism is almost overwhelming.
Yet in this case, the bipartisan opposition may be not only populist but prudent.
Certainly, there are valid reasons to question the White House decision to allow the purchase of the British company that now operates several major U.S. ports by Dubai Ports World, a firm owned by the United Arab Emirates. While the President and his family may adore the Emirates—as they do most of the oil-producing dictatorships in the Persian Gulf—that peculiar Bush preference doesn’t necessarily reflect broader American interests.
Questions about the U.S. approval of Dubai Ports World should begin with the fact that it is not a private business but a government-owned enterprise. The “free-market” fanatics of the Bush administration and the conservative movement should explain exactly why they believe a corporation owned by a foreign state is an acceptable business partner, when they so vigorously oppose public ownership of any economic entity within the United States. Even the Cato Institute, that bastion of libertarian thought, is urging the approval of the Dubai deal.
Imagine the ideological fury among conservatives if our own federal government proposed to take over the operation of American ports (which might not be such an awful idea, considering the risk we now confront from nuclear or other threats that could be shipped into our cities by terrorists). They would scream about “socialism” and unfair competition with private enterprise. After all, they resisted the establishment of the Transportation Security Administration after 9/11 because of their knee-jerk preference for private security firms.
Yet the tribal rulers of the U.A.E. evidently should be encouraged to profit from government enterprise, while the free people of the United States cannot.
The sheiks who run the Emirates permit no such foreign incursion in their own national enterprises. Although they give lip service to open trade—and encourage foreign participation in their designated free-trade zones—they strictly regulate foreign investment in key sectors. According to the State Department and the U.S. Trade Representative, foreign investment in the U.A.E. is heavily restricted. Americans cannot own land there. No business can operate there without majority U.A.E. ownership.
Those rules reflect the harsh and undemocratic nature of the Emirates, whose government is rooted in Wahhabi Islam. The blessings of liberty as enunciated by the Bush doctrine have made little impression there—a country where labor unions are banned, free speech and association are unknown, and violations of human rights are common.
The State Department’s most recent report on human trafficking in 2005 denounced the U.A.E. for its failure to act against that evil practice. Busloads of workers are herded into the country annually under conditions resembling indenture, and planeloads of women are flown in for sexual exploitation. Even children are not exempt from the medieval labor market, with thousands of boys illegally imported to serve as “child camel jockeys”—which sounds like a stupid joke but is emphatically unfunny, as hundreds of them are maltreated and injured every year.
The ruling Emirate families make every important decision secretly and without accountability—in conditions that preclude transparency while encouraging corruption and intrigue. But the Bush administration insists that despite all those flaws, the Emirates are now our staunch allies in the war on terror.
Not so many years ago, those same ruling families were deeply involved in financing terrorism, dating back to their investment in the Bank of Credit and Commerce International. Emirate leaders formerly maintained intimate ties with the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Indeed, a missile strike intended for Osama bin Laden had to be called off in 1999 because certain Emirate royals were present at his hunting camp in Afghanistan. Later, the 9/11 conspirators—who included at least two U.A.E. citizens—operated through safe houses and bank accounts located in Dubai, according to the 9/11 Commission report.
As President Bush pointed out in 2004, the U.A.E. also provided a convenient cover for A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani physicist who operated an Islamist nuclear-weapons ring that threatened global security. Undisturbed by the usually meddlesome government, Mr. Khan’s deputy ran a computer firm in Dubai for years as a front for the ring.
Now, that unfortunate history notwithstanding, the Secretaries of Defense and Homeland Security promise that the Dubai deal will not jeopardize our safety. Bland assurances from Donald Rumsfeld and Michael Chertoff mean little, given their own poor records and stupid decisions. The United States has no obligation to trust its ports to the Emirate sheiks—and every obligation to place public safety above oligarchic profit.