Listening to the sound bites emanating from our nation’s capital last week, one might have thought President Bush was trying to install Saddam Hussein as Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Instead, the source of the hullabaloo was the response to the Dubai Ports World’s purchase of Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, a British shipping company that operates ports in New York, Baltimore, Newark, and Miami.
At first glance, this might seem to be a normal reality of globalization. The caveat that roused all our public servants from their midwinter slumber is that Dubai Ports World is owned by the emir of Dubai, which is a part of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and, quite shockingly, an Arab state. Claims by, among others, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), and Sen. Charles E. Schumer ’71 (D-N.Y.) that the deal would constitute a threat to national security, suggesting it would be akin to blessing an Islamo-terrorist “infiltration” of our ports, are both sensationalist and misleading. Attempts to halt its progress are misguided.
The deal, which was approved by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States in mid-January, would change next to nothing beyond the letterhead of the shipping manifests. U.S. longshoremen will keep their jobs, their unions will continue to organize them, and the majority of managers will stay as well. The Coast Guard and individual port authorities will still be responsible for port safety, and U.S. Customs will still inspect containers.
That there would be no change in port security is even more salient when one considers that several U.S. ports are already managed by foreign-owned corporations. In fact, 13 of 14 container terminal operators at the Port of Los Angeles are owned by companies from Singapore, Taiwan, China, and Japan. Several of them have ties to their respective governments, all of them without incident.
Opponents to the sale concede that foreign ownership is not the problem, but that foreign ownership tied to the United Arab Emirates, home to two 9/11 hijackers, threatens our security. New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine, in condemning the President, remarked, “Dubai is not Britain.” Indeed, few will mistake Dubai for Britain, but Dubai is a stable secular state whose citizenship worships singularly at the altar of the market. It is a modernizing city-state that embraces the West.
Moreover, the UAE is an important ally in counterterrorist activities in the Middle East. It was the first state in the region to sign the U.S. Container Security Initiative, a project designed to protect these same ports. The UAE has also signed onto agreements that ban the shipping of nuclear material and that work to cut off funding to terrorist groups. The United States should not risk alienating the UAE through xenophobic passions and politics.
It is not beyond the realm of possibility that some of the noise is caused by what amounts to racism. Some U.S. citizens, for whom the designation “Arab” is synonymous with little more than “terrorist,” have managed to wrestle the spotlight onto themselves with misguided claims. Our enemies in the Arab world claim that the West categorically hates Arabs. The type of Islamo-phobia arguing against the ports’ sale plays directly into their hands and needs to be checked immediately.
In a broader lens, this issue highlights the reality that port security in this country is egregiously insufficient. While the campaigns of both 2004 presidential candidates focused heavily on this issue, very little has actually been accomplished. Presently, only four to five percent of arriving shipping containers are physically inspected, a number that needs to increase no matter who manages the terminals. It is our hope that isolationist, and perhaps racist, sentiments are not permitted to sidetrack our leaders from this vital issue, that port security is improved, and that just commerce—in this case, the sale of private shipping operations—is inhibited no further.