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The Dubai Ports World Controversy

Hi, Sunil here with David Sanger's analysis of the Dubai Ports World controversy that made a lot of noise in the US

Straight from the International Herald Tribune, the Dubai Ports World Controversy made a lot of news in the US and a lot of noise in Congress.

Definitely a good read if you are not aware of what happened back in 2006.

News Analysis: Taking aim at Dubai: Controversy as proxy

Experts point to other security trouble

By David E. Sanger

Published on FEBRUARY 24, 2006

WASHINGTON: In the political collision between the White House and Congress over the $6.8 billion deal that would give a Dubai company management of six U.S. ports, most experts seem to agree on only one major point: The gaping holes in security at U.S. ports have little to do with the nationality of who is running them.

The deal would transfer the leases for ports in New York, Baltimore and Miami, among others, from a British- owned firm to a company controlled by the government of Dubai, part of the United Arab Emirates.

But the security of the ports is still the responsibility of the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Foreign management of U.S. ports is nothing new, as the role already played by companies from China, Singapore, Japan, Taiwan and trading partners in Europe attests.

While critics of the deal have raised the specter that it might open the way to the "infiltration" of U.S. ports by terrorists from the Middle East, the Dubai company would in most cases inherit a work force that is primarily American, with hiring subject to the same regulations as under the current British management.

Among the many problems at U.S. ports, said Stephen Flynn, a retired Coast Guard commander and port security specialist at the private Council on Foreign Relations in New York, "who owns the management contract ranks near the very bottom."

It has also become clear that the questions involving Dubai Ports World have become a proxy for other debates and a battleground for resurgent tensions between the White House and Congress.

The unstated assumption behind the argument made by critics is that transferring corporate responsibility for the port terminal leases to a conservative Muslim country that bred two of the Sept. 11 hijackers increases the likelihood of another act of terror.

Some independent experts, like Irwin Redlener of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, say there may be some risk in that "a lot of critical information about the movement of cargo is now accessible to new owners."

President George W. Bush, however, has suggested that the criticism of Arab ownership may have racial overtones. And in interviews on Wednesday, officials of Peninsular & Oriental Ports North America - the British company that now manages the six terminals - dismissed the criticism as the imaginings of politicians who have little familiarity with U.S. ports.

"We will still exist, with the same workers and the same facility security plan, regulated by the same Coast Guard and Customs officials," said Michael Seymour, who runs the operation.

Such arguments are not likely to quell the debate, which is already turning to the question of whether the Bush administration cut some corners in speeding the review through the approval process to avoid the scrutiny that could touch off a political firestorm.

Among other battles playing out in the fight over Dubai's role in the ports are whether the Bush administration is spending enough money on port security - and whether, despite the president's periodic reassurances, it is focusing its energies on the right problems.

Another is whether the White House's case on port security is harmed by the fact that the key player is the Department of Homeland Security - whose failures in Hurricane Katrina have been widely documented.

"The management of these ports is the door which you walk through to get to all of these other questions," said Senator John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat. "It raises a lot of questions about the lobbying, the connections and the terms of the deal, and the security problems the administration has left unaddressed."

It is also convenient for the Democrats, who suddenly find themselves able to sound more hawkish on homeland security than Bush.

Bush, in turn, finds himself burdened with the more nuanced argument that turning down this deal would send a message to the entire Arab world that it is not to be trusted, no matter how friendly individual countries may have been.

The administration's core problem at the ports, most experts agree, is how long it has taken for the U.S. government to set and enforce new security standards and provide the technology to look inside the millions of containers that flow through them.

The newly created U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency, for example, requires that cargo ships arriving in the United States must send, electronically, lists of what is put in containers headed for U.S. ports. But only 4 or 5 percent of those containers are actually inspected.

There is virtually no standard for how containers are sealed, or for certifying the identities of thousands of drivers who come into the ports to pick them up. If a nuclear weapon is put inside a container - the real fear here, but one that politicians do not want to discuss explicitly - "it will probably happen when some truck driver is paid off to take a long lunch, before he even gets near a terminal," Flynn said.

That is where the concerns about Dubai come in. While the company in question has not been a focus of investigations, Dubai has been a way station for a lot of contraband, some of it nuclear.

Abdul Qadeer Khan, the founder of Pakistan’s nuclear program, made Dubai his transshipment point for the equipment he sent to Libya and Iran precisely because he determined he could operate there without worrying about investigators.

"I'm not worried about who is running the New York port," said a senior inspector for the International Atomic Energy Agency, insisting he could not be named because the agency's work was considered confidential. "I'm worried about what arrives at the New York port."

That port, and the five others Dubai Ports hopes to manage, are the last line of defense to stop a weapon from entering U.S. territory. But Seymour, the head of the P&O subsidiary now running the operations, notes that only one of the six ports is equipped with a working radiation detection system that every cargo container must pass through.

Closing that gaping hole is the responsibility of the U.S. government, he noted, and is not affected by whether the United Arab Emirates or anyone else takes over the terminals.

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On which side of the debate spectrum do you stand? What and how do you feel about the entire ports world debate? Should Dubai have given up control? Was the US right or wrong?

I am curious to hear your answer. Will your perspective heavily depend on your origin?

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