March 16, 2006

US-Oman Deal Should Survive Ports Furor: Lawmaker

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Congress is likely to approve a free-trade pact with Oman this year despite the furor over a state-owned Arab company managing American ports, a Democratic congressman said on Thursday.

"My prediction on Oman -- if I was a betting man, I'd bet it would happen," Rep. Gregory Meeks, a New York Democrat, said in remarks to the USA Engage business coalition, which lobbies against the use of unilateral U.S. sanctions.

But Meeks, one of only 15 Democrats in the House of Representatives who voted for a free trade pact with Central America last year, said the controversy involving Dubai Ports World could erode some support for a deal with Oman, which is a neighbor to the United Arab Emirates.

"I think that sets it back just a little bit ... It may make some people a little more timid than they were," he said.

DP World is owned by the government of Dubai, which is part of the UAE. It completed a $6.8 billion purchase of British company P&O that has a subsidiary involved in terminal operations at six major U.S. ports.

But amid protests by U.S. lawmakers, DP World said last week it would give up control of the U.S. opersions.

The Bush administration also hopes to finish a free trade agreement with the UAE in the coming months, but Meeks said it would be harder for that pact to win approval.

"If it happened today, it wouldn't work," Meeks said.

Supporters will have to educate members of Congress on the benefits of the agreement and also demonstrate to them that the UAE "is our ally," Meeks said.