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Last Updated: Tuesday, 7 March 2006, 10:00 GMT
Emiratis count cost of P&O port deal
By Neil Heathcote
BBC News, Dubai

It's remarkable how many people in Dubai now accuse the USA of being anti-Arab. And many of those who say it loudest are the Westerners.

Dubai port
US complaints centre on container security

The city is home to DP World, the company at the centre of the row over America's ports and its homeland security. It's also home to a large expatriate community, including Americans and Europeans, all attracted by the comfortable lifestyle and business-friendly environment.

To them, the idea that the country somehow poses a terrorist threat seems unreal - not to say disingenuous.

If it's uncontroversial for a UK company to run the ports, they ask, why is another American ally, the UAE, considered a security risk? Racism, they imply, must the answer.

Confusion?

Emiratis, as UAE residents are known, are far more discreet. The DP World takeover of 6 US ports is a business deal pure and simple, they say. Once Americans look into it, they'll see that's the case and approve it. The whole row revolves around a simple confusion: DP World will manage the ports, not run their security.

There's a great deal of money at stake on both sides.

Anytime something that is purely a business deal gets stopped - whether for security reasons or any reason - it will raise a flag and make some people think twice.
Lou Scotto, American Business Council of Dubai

The Gulf states are riding the crest of the oil boom, and have been looking to invest some of their new-found wealth outside the region. The aim: to reduce their dependence on oil.

In the past 18 months alone, UAE based companies have bought a $2bn stake in Time Warner, a $1bn stake in DaimlerChrysler, a $700m hotel in New York, the port assets of America's CSX Corporation and a 25% stake in a Canadian aluminium smelter.

Suddenly, with DP World, the shopping spree has hit a roadblock. America seems to have decided there are limits after all.

Environment

Is the UAE government worried?

"The only thing that I personally think might be a concern is about the foreign investment going into the US," says the UAE's economy minister, Lubna Bint Khalid Al Qasimi.

"The question is whether these kind of processes will take longer because of politics and things like that. That would raise a concern not only to investors here, but probably in other countries - because that's a sign of whether it's a pro-investment environment or not."

This fear is echoed around the Gulf.

The head of the American Business Council in Dubai has written an open letter to Congress supporting DP World.

Dubai port
If the deal goes through, DP World will operate six US ports

If necessary, he says, he'll send a delegation over to persuade US lawmakers in person - because the row will inevitably affect how keen Gulf investors are to do business with America.

"It would have to, wouldn't it?" says Council head Lou Scotto.

"Anytime something that is purely a business deal gets stopped - whether for security reasons or any reason - it will raise a flag and make some people think twice.

"Or at least have an alternative plan of action: 'Well, if not the US, then where else can we go?'"

To complicate matters, the two countries are in the middle of negotiations to sign a free trade deal. Those talks are carrying on as usual, but negotiations may now be slowed while certain points are clarified.

"This incident with P&O may just bring certain questions on our side about the process of investment - because a major chunk of the FTA is related to investment and investment in the US," says Sheikha Lubna.

"So this will maybe require some clarification of questions on our side. But I am 100% confident that it will go through."

Richer pickings

With oil prices expected to remain high, Gulf governments are keen to carry on with their acquisition spree. They understand the US context, they appreciate President Bush's support, and are happy to wait a little longer - as long as the DP World deal does eventually go through.

Private investors, however, may be more easily put off.

"Organisations such as the Kuwait Investment Agency and the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority are, I think, are looking at the situation and saying 'it doesn't change our modus operandi'," says Steve Brice at Standard Chartered Bank.

"Private individuals I think are probably the people who will change their minds."

For many of these investors, the US offers relatively few good deals anyway - particularly in comparison to the property and stock market booms in the Middle East, or the potential returns from Asia.

Political problems will just persuade them to carry on looking elsewhere.

The row over DP World will not stop those who spot an opportunity in America from pursuing it. But it may give many investors pause for thought - the more so if the row drags on without a solution.

And particularly if they find there are simply easier and more profitable places to do business elsewhere.


SEE ALSO:
US examines fresh Dubai takeover
02 Mar 06 |  Business
US Coast Guard warned about ports
28 Feb 06 |  Americas
Review agreed in P&O takeover bid
27 Feb 06 |  Americas
Arab firm to delay US ports deal
24 Feb 06 |  Americas
Bush threatens veto in ports row
22 Feb 06 |  Americas


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