Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Dubai Ports Uproar - A Tempest in a 40 TEU Container

The whole Dubai ports uproar is bothering me if for no other reason that it has taken three days for the majority of the fixed-media to finally getting around to identifying what is really happening and they still aren't doing a good job of it.

The first reports that came out suggested that the United States was somehow out-sourcing the entire operation of six US ports to a United Arab Emirates state-controlled company, Dubai Ports World. I have to admit THAT got my attention. The very idea sent me spinning.

Those reports then percolated into reports of the out-sourcing of port security and ports control. That put me on guard. If it is one thing that would never be permitted by the US government, even under more peaceful times, it is the port security system and the port state control which is strictly a US government function operated by the US Coast Guard, the US Immigration and Naturalization Service and US Customs and Border Protection Service.

By this time enough US senators and congressional representatives had jumped onto the bandwagon to make it look like the Bush administration was selling New York, Baltimore, Miami, Philadelphia, New Orleans and New Jersey harbors to the highest bidder with no concern for security. Of course, it wasn't that way at all.

It took too long for the fixed-media to actually get all the facts out. DPW, in purchasing Peninsular & Orient Steam Navigation Company was also purchasing the terminals in various worldwide ports which P&O had been operating. And that's the point. It's terminal operations within those ports; not the ports themselves. Security and Port State Control isn't being handed over and any suggestion to the contrary is easily dismissed.

I'll admit that the optics are horrible. Bush has been at the vanguard of a body of Republicans who justify any and all acts, legal and illegal, in the name of combatting terrorism. How often have we heard that terrorists are "lurking"; that they will use any means to destroy America; that his first and most important job is to use any means to protect Americans? Too often, for my appetite, but that is beside the point.

On the surface this looks like Bush is faced with the dichotomy of defending a shady business deal to the detriment of national security, which he has so vociferously defended in the past. I just don't see it that way. As someone who is now fully involved in the global merchant marine, as both a ship's captain and an instructor, I see no change in security procedures or state control in US ports.

Bush may not be a good businessman, and he is perhaps the worst US president the modern world has ever known, but he is, above all else, an entrenched capitalist. Would he sell out the security of the US for a solid buck? Maybe, but that's not happening here.

If anything rang alarm bells in my head, (and still does), it was the sudden and passionate defence of this deal offered by Bush. His threat to veto any bill which stood in the way of this transfer of US-based terminals from publicly traded P&O to state-controlled DPW was shocking. I'm still trying to assess why he would suddenly unravel over this issue. The best I can do is offer a guess.

Bush may not have known the names of well-known world leaders when he came to power, but because of family business arrangements, he could probably have named every arab prince, sultan, emir and sheik with political control of the Middle East oil industry. He undoubtedly had a better relationship with Sheik Maktum bin Rashid al-Maktum of Dubai than he did with Canada's Jean Chretien. Dubai and the six other emirates, despite involvement with al Qaeda and some of the operatives of Osama bin Laden, have provided bases and logistical support to the US Navy and US Air Force. To suddenly have a spear tossed into what he perceives as an innocuous global business deal would raise immediate concerns as to the stability of military support for his forces in the Gulf region. (Although I still don't think that warranted the reaction we all saw.)

Perhaps there is some backdoor financial arrangement, although even there, I have doubts. In any case, since DPW is not a truly public company and the UAE banking system is not open to public scrutiny, we won't know until after 2008 when Bush is out of office.

The port security and port state control cards are nothing but jokers in the deck on this issue and the issue, as bad as certain aspects of the deal are, is no worse than China or any other state-owned company operating terminals in US ports. If it is, I had better get to work re-writing lesson plans.

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