February 23, 2006

Rice soothes UAE over ports row

By Saul Hudson

ABU DHABI (Reuters) - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
sought on a trip on Thursday to the United Arab Emirates to
assure the government that the Bush administration supported a
deal to let a firm from the Gulf state manage some U.S. ports.

Rice hailed the UAE as a key ally in comments meant both to
soothe any concerns in the state of U.S. bias against the UAE,
and Middle Eastern countries in general, and to soften U.S.
lawmakers' opposition to the deal.

She met UAE Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid
al-Maktoum, who is also the ruler of Dubai, the emirate that
owns the port operations company, and Crown Prince of the
emirate of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahayan.

Rice told them the Bush administration was confident the
deal would go through despite a political firestorm in
Washington, said a senior State Department official, who asked
not to be named because he was outlining private talks.

The UAE officials said the U.S. administration had spoken
about the controversy "in a straightforward manner and as a
good friend and ally," he said in a written answer to
reporters' questions about the talks.

Rice earlier told reporters the U.S. administration had
spent three months vetting the deal, dismissing concerns by
several Congress members that it could be a threat to national

"This is supposed to be a process that raises concerns if
they are there but does not presume that a country in the
Middle East should not be capable of doing a deal like this,"
she said aboard her plane on a Middle East tour.

"We have a really strong ally in the UAE. Our naval
activity with the UAE is probably more active and more
intensive than any place else in the region."


U.S. officials highlighted the UAE's support for the United
States, citing examples such as how it hosts more American Navy
ships than any other foreign port and its quick offer of aid to
U.S. hurricane victims last year.

Rice's trip to Abu Dhabi was scheduled before the political
row erupted over the sale of British port operator P&O to UAE
firm Dubai Ports World. P&O manages six U.S. ports, including
New York and Miami.

UAE officials have refused to wade into the row. But Sultan
Ahmed Bin Sulayem, chairman of state-owned DP World, hailed the
support of President George W. Bush, who has threatened to veto
any attempts to block the deal.

"We are very encouraged by what Mr. Bush has said. We are
happy that he takes this view," he told Reuters in Dubai.

"Of course we are confident it will go ahead. There's no
question about it. We would not have all raised all this money
and done so much work if it was not going to."

Senior U.S. officials traveling with Rice said they doubted
the row would affect ties because of the Bush administration's
clear backing for the deal.

"They probably feel unfairly treated," one official said.
"(But) the issue is not going to be troublesome, since it is a
different branch of government (raising objections)."

Dubai Ports officials said the acquisition would be
completed on March 2. Rice was not expected to visit Dubai, the
emirate at the center of the controversy.

The United States is negotiating a free trade agreement
with the UAE -- its third largest trading partner in the Middle
East after Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The political backlash over the deal, including among top
lawmakers in Bush's Republican party, has sparked complaints in
the Middle East of anti-Arab sentiment.

(Additional reporting by Dayan Candappa in Dubai)