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Right now, the quaintly named Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O), an old, privately owned British shipping firm, manages six of our busiest east-coast ports. Dubai Ports World (DPW), a shipping company owned by the government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), wants to take over from the Brits. Not to worry, proponents of the deal tell us: the UAE is a friendly country, and besides, in today's global economy, this is a perfectly ordinary commercial transaction -- a business deal, not a political one. As Daniel Henninger put it: "Presumably they are in the port management business for the money."
It would be comforting if either of these claims were true. Alas, available evidence raises serious doubts about both. Let's start with the friendliness claim. Proponents of the deal insist that, whatever hostilities may have existed in the past, the UAE rallied to our side after September 11, 2001. If so, the people living there didn't seem to get the message. Zogby International pollsters asked a representative sampling of citizens of the UAE if their overall impression of the U.S. was favorable or unfavorable in 2002, after 9/11 had demonstrated our vulnerability to the world. Only 11 percent responded that their impression was favorable; 87 percent responded that it was unfavorable.
Things did improve a bit when he asked them again in 2005, after we had demonstrated our military might, and our willingness to use it, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Only 73 percent hate us now. Compare that with a 2005 poll in Afghanistan, where World Public Opinion.Org found that 81 percent of the people view us favorably, or India, where the Pew Global Attitudes Survey found that 71 percent do, and it's clear that it's a misperception to see the UAE as a friendly country.
Even if we make special allowances for the fact that the UAE is an Arab state, and compare it only to other Arab states, it's a stretch to call it friendly. In Morocco, for example, in that same 2002 Zogby poll, 38 percent of the people viewed us favorably -- hardly a ringing endorsement, but more than three times as many "friendlies" as in the UAE.
But Morocco doesn't sit on the strategic Persian Gulf. The UAE does; it has the best deep-water port and the most modern airfields and air training facilities in the Gulf region, and it lets our military make extensive use of them. This is very useful for us, but it's even more useful for the UAE for geostrategic reasons that have nothing to do with friendliness, and will not change if we reject the Dubai Ports deal (especially if we do it as Bill Bennett and Seth Leibsohn suggest, by sending a back-channel message to the UAE to withdraw its offer, as China withdrew its UNOCAL offer last year).
Americans who worry that this is somehow "unfair" should realize that, with the limited exception of the Jebal Ali manufacturing complex in Dubai, the UAE requires at least 51 percent Emirati ownership of all businesses operating in their country. Still, some Americans will doubtless object that, after all, DPW is not owned by the people of the UAE but by its government, and it is unfair to blame a government for the hostility of its people. There may be some truth to that in countries with multiple parties and a free press, but the UAE is not one of those countries. There has never been an election there, all political parties are illegal, and the press is not free. If the UAE government objected to the anti-American propaganda that fills the Emirati press, that would be the end of that. A journalist who flouted the government's well-known unwritten rules wouldn't last five minutes.
We should reject the Dubai Ports deal, not just because it is risky to have a hostile country managing critical parts of our infrastructure, but because the claim that the UAE's desire to do so is "just business" presents us with a mystery. At the very least, those who make this claim need to explain why the UAE agreed to pay P&O a 70-percent premium over existing share prices to buy the company. If P&O is really worth $6.8 billion, why didn't any other international shipping company offer anything remotely like that (see also)? Apologists for the deal say the problem is that few privately-owned companies have pockets deep enough to pay that much. Maybe, but DPW is hardly the only deep-pocketed, government-owned international shipping giant, and none of the others made any attempt to outbid DPW either. Apparently, no one else thought they could pay that kind of money to manage our ports and still make a profit. Perhaps DPW knows something no other shipping company does. Then again, it may be that DPW has some other motives for wanting to take over the management of key American ports.
The Dubai Ports deal appears to be dead, killed by the overwhelming opposition of ordinary Americans. Now conventional foreign-policy experts worry about the damage this allegedly rude, Arab-phobic act will do to our ongoing diplomatic courtship of the United Arab Emirates and its Arab sister states in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). As these anxious experts see it, the UAE, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Bahrain have been doing us a great favor by hosting our military on their territories, and if we had any sense, we would reward them for these generous acts of friendship by approving any investments in our country their governments care to make. Instead, we have recklessly offended them all by rejecting the UAE's Dubai Ports deal, arousing their justified anger, and putting their willingness to continue hosting our military at risk. To undo the damage and avert these potentially dire consequences, these experts tell us, we must now work harder than ever to soothe and placate them, and get back into their good graces.
Call that the dating-game school of diplomacy.
Now let's take another look at our relations with the UAE and its sister states, based on the geopolitical realities of the Gulf region. From this perspective, we see that the UAE and four of its sister states don't host the U.S. military as a favor to us, out of friendship. They host our forces because it is in their national interest to do so; because America is their protector; because without our military might, they would cease to exist, being gobbled up by their larger neighbors, just as Kuwait was gobbled up by Saddam Hussein until we threw the Iraqi invaders out and restored the country to its ruling emirs in 1991.
Iraq isn't much of a threat at present, thanks to our toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and our ongoing military presence there, but this is an unstable region, long riven by a multitude of bitter and old border disputes. Two other Gulf neighbors, Iran and Saudi Arabia, have longstanding claims to some of the UAE's oil lands and to oil rich parts of its sister states too. Saudi Arabia is the sixth member of the GCC, the big sister of the group, and her relationship to the other five was, until quite recently, something like that of Big Nurse to the inmates in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. In the last few years, the growing instability of the Wahhabi kingdom has weakened the Saudi's ability to dominate and bully. Nevertheless, the smaller states' existential peril remains very real.
To begin to understand just how vulnerable and threatened the UAE and its sister states are, it helps to have a clear picture of their size in relation to the size of the neighboring Gulf states that covet their territories and their oil. So let's look at population numbers, using estimates on which the U.S. Census Bureau and the CIA World Factbook agree. (Our State Department offers somewhat different figures, but no matter; whichever figures you use, the UAE and its four Arab sisters are tiny little statelets, surrounded by hostile, rapacious giants.)
Here are the numbers: The UAE has about two and a half million inhabitants, making it a little bigger than Kuwait, which has two and a third million, and a little smaller than Oman, which has three million. Qatar and Bahrain are smaller still, with less than a million inhabitants each. All five together have less than ten million inhabitants, and most of these are hired hands who can never become citizens -- either pampered foreign managers who run the countries' state-owned businesses or much-abused foreign laborers and domestics who do the countries' dirty work. Compare that to Saudi Arabia's more than 26 million natives and Iran's 68 million, and you get some idea of how perilous a situation the UAE and its little sisters are in, and how completely they depend on the protection of a strong outside power for their existence. Indeed, they have lasted this long only because they have always had a powerful foreign protector -- before us, it was the British. To put it in plain English, we don't owe them; they owe us.
Our failure to recognize this basic fact and act on it by demanding a fair price for our protection allows statelets like the UAE to play on both sides, befriending Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda before 9/11 and terrorist groups like Hamas today. Their ties to Hamas are especially close because so many of these statelet's foreign managers are Palestinians, except in Kuwait, which drove about 370,000 of them from its territory after they collaborated with Saddam Hussein in the invasion and despoliation of their country. Still, even Kuwait remains fiercely committed to the Palestinians' cause -- the destruction of our ally, Israel -- and all five support the boycott of Israeli goods, although Oman, Qatar, and Bahrain have occasionally shown signs of wanting to relax it.
The UAE has been especially relentless in resisting any such softening of Arab rejectionism, and why not? It earns them brownie points with all the Arab fanatics and all the terrorist groups in the region, and costs them nothing in terms of our support. We don't grasp the diplomatic leverage our position gives us, and therefore we cannot use it to advance our interests and those of allies who actually share our goals. Instead, we let ourselves be bullied by arrogant and hostile little statelets who shrewdly exploit our indiscriminate eagerness to make all Arabs like us, and win what our diplomats are pleased to call their "friendship." In fact, friendship among states -- to the extent that it exists -- is based on respect, and an easily manipulated over-eagerness to please is more likely to generate contempt. As Harry Truman, a genuine foreign-policy maven, used to say about another hard place, Washington, if you want a friend, get a dog.
"Misperceptions and Mysteries" appeared March 07, 2006; "Dating
Game Diplomacy" appeared March 13, 2006. Both were published in NRO.
Barbara Lerner is a freelance writer. She lives in Chicago but travels to Israel frequently and often writes about Israeli personalities and politics. She is a frequent contributer to National Review Online (NRO).
"Misperceptions and Mysteries" appeared March 07, 2006; "Dating Game Diplomacy" appeared March 13, 2006. Both were published in NRO.
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