U.S. needs friends in the Arab world such as UAE, say ex-diplomat and scholar
By Douglas Birch, Sun reporter,Originally published February 23, 2006
The furor over Dubai Ports World is calling into question whether Americans understand or trust even an Arab government that has close ties to the United States and shares its concerns about terrorism.
The United Arab Emirates are seven sheikdoms spread along the southern shore of the Persian Gulf and loosely united in a federation. Until the debate erupted in Washington about the Dubai Ports World plan to partly manage ports in Baltimore and five other American cities, the Emirates were known largely for making money, not involvement in radical Islamic politics.
"I think this thing is a firestorm that’s, frankly, politically motivated, and a dangerous one because it tends to polarize our relations with that part of the world," said Michael Sterner, a retired diplomat who was U.S. ambassador to the UAE in the 1970s. "I don’t see any concerns whatsoever with having this state-owned company run the ports."
U.S. Navy ships regularly visit Emirate ports. The al Dafrah Air Base in Abu Dhabi serves as a staging area for reconnaissance flights over Iraq and Afghanistan. And the city of Dubai has long been a liberty port for American service members without major incidents.
"In all ways I can remember, they have supported us," Sterner said.
Once a center for pearl production and gold smuggling, Dubai has a long history as a global trading post. Oil dollars have gushed into Emirati banks, and the entrepreneurial states are now scouring the globe for new investments, including the port management business.
"It’s the Singapore of the Middle East," said Michael C. Hudson, director of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University in Washington. "There’s an enormous boom going on there, and they don’t want to spoil it."
Dubai is the best-known Emirate, with its deepwater port, gleaming international airport and enormous high-rise housing developments on artificial islands in the gulf. It is the brashest commercial hub in the region, a desert city-state with an indoor ski slope and two water parks.
Sometimes called Dubai Inc., it is also in the midst of a construction boom. Residents brag that one-quarter of all the world’s construction cranes are now in Dubai. Construction of the syringe-shaped Burj Dubai, which is expected to be the worlds tallest structure, is scheduled for completion in 2008.
Emirati citizens are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslims. Dubai and the other major trading emirates have extensive business ties with Iran and have long served as Iran’s storefront.
There have been peaceful demonstrations outside local mosques against the Danish newspaper cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad, and a teacher in the Emirates was fired for showing her class one of the pictures. But the controversy has not triggered the violence seen elsewhere.
In a report released last month, Human Rights Watch said the Emirates’ foreign workers – mostly from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh – "are particularly vulnerable to human rights violations," especially nonpayment of wages. Foreigners account for about 1.6 million of the nation’s 2.6 million residents, according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Human Rights Watch also criticized the central government for not signing most international human and labor rights treaties.
Foreign workers have no political rights; the seven emirates are governed by hereditary rulers, and there are no elections.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the UAE has tightened its banking regulations, but there is also a parallel, unregulated network of money lenders and middlemen, as is common in the Arab world.
Maintaining close ties to moderate Islamic states such as the Emirates is "essential" for the U.S., said Joseph A. Kechichian, an independent scholar and author of A Century in Thirty Years, a book about the UAE.
"We are now told to be afraid of Arabs because Arabs are terrorists," he said. "This is childish. And it’s politically unwise. We need allies in the Muslim world, and the United Arab Emirates is one of the most important allies in the war on terrorism. We must not ostracize them."
The view that Arab-owned companies should be mistrusted or barred is naive at best, he said: "We have to accept that in a globalized economy, there will be new investors who will have leeway in global financial matters."
Terrorist groups have used the Emirates as a transit point for personnel and finances, experts say, because the Emirates are less authoritarian than many neighboring states.