February 21, 2006

Arab Americans see bigotry behind ports uproar

By Alan Elsner

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Arab-Americans contended on Tuesday
that bias and bigotry, not security concerns, lay behind the
uproar over a deal that would place commercial operations at
six U.S. ports in the hands of an Arab company.

The furor centers around the $6.8 billion acquisition by
Dubai Ports World, owned by one of the United Arab Emirates, of
London-based Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co. P&O
had been running operations at shipping terminals in New York,
New Jersey, Baltimore, New Orleans, Miami, and Philadelphia.

Citing what they say are fears of lax security, politicians
from both parties called on President George W. Bush to cancel
the deal and several began drafting legislation to block it.
The issue was also increasingly being aired on conservative
talk radio stations and in Internet blogs.

"I find some of the rhetoric being used against this deal
shameful and irresponsible. There is bigotry coming out here,"
said James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute.

He said politicians were exploiting fears left over from
September 11 to gain advantage in a congressional election

"Bush is vulnerable so the Democrats jump on it. The
Republicans feel vulnerable so they jump on it. The slogan is,
if it's Arab, it's bad. Hammer away," Zogby said.

According to some industry analysts, the change in
management would have no real effect on security, which would
still be carried out by American workers to international
standards. The UAE, whose government owns Dubai Ports World, is
an international financial hub and close U.S. ally.

"The Emirates have been very pro-active partners in helping
our security. They have a solid track record of cooperation,"
said Peter Tirschwell, publisher of the Journal of Commerce.

Rabiah Ahmed of the Council on American-Islamic Relations
said members of her organization also believed anti-Arab
bigotry was driving the debate.

"The perception in the Arab-American community is that this
is related to anti-Arab sentiment," she said.

Despite the UAE's close ties to the United States, some
critics say lax controls allowed some of the September 11
hijackers to exploit its banking sector to transfer funds to
support the attacks. Others have suggested its commercial links
with Iran are a cause for worry.

"It is obviously an emotional, political and security
issue, but I don't see xenophobia involved in this," said Peter
Brookes of the conservative Heritage Foundation.


The opposition was reminiscent of a similar controversy
last year when China National Offshore Oil Company Ltd. tried
to purchase Unocal, a U.S. oil services company. The Chinese
company ultimately withdrew its offer in the face of fierce
political opposition.

South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham said
Americans were not against foreign acquisitions as such but
were suspicious when they involved security infrastructure.

"Americans right now want free trade, but when it comes to
national security issues, we want to maintain the
infrastructure ourselves," he told Fox News Sunday.

"I don't think now is the time to outsource major port
security to a foreign-based company," he said.

Daniel Griswold of the libertarian Cato Institute said
opposition to the Emirates acquisition had more merit than the
opposition to the Chinese energy bid.

"Here, there are legitimate questions of port security.
Experts have long warned us that U.S. ports could be an entry
point for weapons of mass destruction and we can only search
one container in every 20 that come in," he said.

But Griswold conceded anti-Arab feelings were also playing
a role. "It's obviously part of the mix and there's also some
misunderstanding and a lot of political grandstanding going
on," he said.