Philip Bowring: A boatload of ignorance on show
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 24, 2006
Apparently they only woke up to the issue after the deal for Dubai to buy the British group P&O had already been consummated. Yet anyone who made only a cursory glance at the international business news would have known for several weeks that P&O was up for sale and the only two bidders were state- owned companies - Dubai Ports and Singapore's state holding company Temasek, which controls the Port of Singapore Authority. Why did they not make a fuss then?
Perhaps there was an element of prejudice. Those now complaining may have expected or hoped that Singapore, a non-Muslim U.S. ally, would get the deal. It's more likely, however, the now outraged senators and congressmen were oblivious to the outside world. And the only way they can now oppose the deal without sounding racist is to insist that foreign governments should not be permitted to own U.S. port facilities.
The second kind of ignorance permeating almost all the coverage of this issue is the lack of any reference to the global spread of P&O Ports activities. It own terminals at major ports in Britain (London and Southampton), Belgium (Antwerp), France (Marseilles), India (Madras), China (Shekou), Australia (Sydney and Melbourne), Argentina (Buenos Aires) and elsewhere. Have there been protests from politicians or the news media in these countries? Have their security services been up in arms?
The British grumbled a little at losing ownership of one of their most venerable companies, but no one suggested that security was now at risk because of Arab ownership. Only in the United States are there objections to what was clearly a commercial deal, with Dubai paying top dollar to try to build its position as an international trading hub - something it has been doing successfully for many years.
The ignorance on display about Dubai itself is stunning, too. As a small trading state it has no other option than to deal with all its neighbors in much the same way, as do Singapore and Hong Kong - regardless of politics. It certainly isn't an example of democracy, but it is a society more open to different cultures and to commerce of any sort than any in the Gulf region. (It even has an English-language newspaper whose foreign coverage is more extensive than any U.S. newspaper.)
The fourth level of ignorance is that ownership of such an immovable infrastructure asset as a port terminal is largely irrelevant to its operations, which all come directly under U.S. laws, regulations and the oversight of Homeland Security. Any terrorist threat that ports may pose to America is via containers that arrive there, not the process of unloading. Nor does P&O control the various U.S. ports where it has operations. It is just one of several owners of terminals.
If, for some reason, the United States objected to foreign ownership, why was this not an issue when the British controlled P&O? It is particularly bizarre now to see Americans complaining not about a purchase from U.S. interests but simply a transfer between foreign investors.
Doubtless in the Arab and Muslim worlds this will be seen as another example of institutionalized racism in the United States. For those in the rest of the world it merely appears another example of U.S. reluctance to follow the tenets of the globalization, which it purports to favor. What price now the rights of Coca-Cola and Citicorp to operate almost everywhere bar Cuba and North Korea?
The Bush administration is to be commended for standing up to the jingoism of Senator Hillary Clinton and assorted other politicians and columnists. For once, this administration is showing some sense of global realities. One of those is that foreigners are going to continue to want to buy real assets in the United States with their surplus dollars rather than low-yielding paper from the U.S. Treasury and Fannie Mae.