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Burning Allies -- and Ourselves

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By David Ignatius
Friday, March 10, 2006

DUBAI -- Officials here heard late Thursday that Karl Rove had decided to pull the plug. President Bush's political adviser was said to have conveyed to a top manager of Dubai Ports World in Washington that the White House couldn't hold out any longer against congressional pressure to kill the Arab company's plan to acquire freight terminals at six U.S. ports. The initial response of one Dubai executive was: "Who's Karl Rove?" But in the end, political leaders here recognized that it was time to fold a losing hand.

Until Rove's decision, Dubai's business leaders had insisted they would fight on. The chairman of Dubai Ports World, Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem, told me emphatically on Wednesday that his company would do whatever was necessary to convince Congress that the deal posed no security risk -- new investment, additional equipment, more scanning of cargo, special checks of UAE personnel, including himself. But that was before the House Appropriations Committee voted 62 to 2 to kill the deal.

I suspect America will pay a steep price for Congress's rejection of this deal. It sent a message that for all the U.S. rhetoric about free trade and partnerships with allies, America is basically hostile to Arab investment. And it shouldn't be surprising if Arab investors respond in kind. One could blame it all on craven members of Congress, if the opinion polls didn't show that Americans are overwhelmingly against the deal -- and suspicious of Muslims in general. Those poll numbers tell us that America hasn't gotten over Sept. 11, 2001. If anything, Iraq has deepened the country's anxiety, introspection and foreboding.

To appreciate how cockeyed America's Dubai-phobia is, you have to spend a little time here, as I did this week. The truth is, this is one of the few places in the Arab world where things have been going in the right direction -- away from terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism and toward an open, modern economy. That's why congressional opposition came as such a surprise here. People in the UAE think they're America's friends.

The ports deal was part of the UAE's embrace of things Western. Wednesday night, I traveled with the minister of higher education, Sheik Nahayan bin Mubarak, to the dusty city of Al Ain to attend a Mozart festival at which the Vienna Chamber Orchestra performed. And I visited the American University of Sharjah, created nine years ago as a beacon of liberal arts education. On a wall next to the chancellor's office is a photo of the twin towers in New York, taken by one of the students on June 8, 2001. "There are no words strong enough to express how we feel today," reads a statement signed by UAE students.

It's hard to imagine an Arab more pro-American than Sulayem. He earned a degree in economics from Temple University in 1981, and he's still a fanatic about Philadelphia cheese steaks. He described a pilgrimage last New Year's Eve from New York to Pat's King of Steaks in South Philly, only to find the place closed. Before the deal collapsed, Sulayem had a free-trader's conviction that good business judgment would prevail over political rhetoric. "We are businessmen -- we don't understand politics -- but it is a surprise to us. We have been cooperating with the U.S. We are their best friends."

Many of the UAE's political leaders, including the crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed, had grown increasingly convinced this week that the wisest course would be to pull out. But that view was resisted until almost the end by the business leadership in Dubai, including Dubai's ruler, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid.

Arab radicals will be gloating, admonishing the UAE leaders, "We told you so." But officials here recognize that they're in a common fight with us against al-Qaeda. And unlike some Arab nations, the UAE really is fighting -- reforming its education system to block Islamic zealots and taking public stands with the United States despite terrorist threats. They have created one of the best intelligence services in the Arab world, and their special forces will be fighting quietly alongside the United States in Afghanistan tomorrow, and the day after.

President Bush tried to do the right thing on the Dubai ports deal, but he got rolled by a runaway Congress. The collapse of the deal was a measure of Bush's political weakness -- but even more, of America's traumatized post-Sept. 11 politics. The ironic fact is that the UAE is precisely the kind of Arab ally the United States needs most now. But that clearly didn't matter to an election-year Congress, which responded to the Dubai deal with a frenzy of Muslim-bashing disguised as concern about terrorism. And we wonder why the rest of the world doesn't like us.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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