Published 28 February 06
Walid Phares, Ph.D.
World Defense Review columnist
A Jihad window at the Emirates' gate?
The controversy about the UAE-based company projected to take over operations in a number of U.S. seaports, quickly - and unfortunately - dove into domestic politics. The issue was turned into trusting or not the will and the capacity of the Government, particularly the executive branch to "secure the nation against Terrorists." And once the debate mutates into investigating the intentions of the policy makers, particularly the President and his assistants, regarding the prosecution of the War on Terror, most of the exchange diverts to "politics" instead of "policies." The seaports management issue at this point is framed by some more like a Ports-Gate affair rather than a rational examination of a strategic security matter a la 9/11 Commission. Unfortunately, the immediate politicization of national security, with its ramifications on the grounds of leadership credibility, of I-told-you-so, and of I-know-better, hurts the greater vision of the debate.
Let's try to address the UAE affair in a calm, fair and systematic analysis.
The parties engaged in the debate introduced a number of arguments, which complicated the understanding by the public of the core-issue. Here are a few and my comments:
The backers of the deal stated that it would be unfair for the U.S. Government to reject the deal with the UAE just because it is an "Arab country." This argument doesn't hold because nowhere in the opposing views was a statement made that the deal had to be rejected "because" the signing party was an "Arab country." First, the opposition to the contract applies to other countries from all backgrounds: Arab and non-Arab. What applies to a specific issue within the UAE would also apply to Indonesia, Malaysia, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Nigeria, and many other candidates. The issue is not the "ethnic identity" of the UAE, but the capability of terrorists to penetrate the U.S. system by penetrating a particular country.
Another extreme argument made, not necessarily by government spokespersons, but by commentators is that "not concluding an agreement with an Arab country will offend Arabs in general and in the U.S. in particular: Obviously this is a far fetched "lobbyist" argument. For the answer to this charge is that it would be not only welcome, but even encouraged to have Arab Americans (and other Middle Eastern Americans) to be assigned high jobs in this field, and also welcomed to sign contracts with Arab-American companies who can carry such jobs. Better, other Arab countries, had they had the possibilities would possibly qualify better, such as Jordan for example.
The Ally factor
A more serious argument is that the UAE is an "ally in the War on Terror." Therefore, concludes the proponents, this particular status would obligate the U.S. to grant the management of seaports to companies based in Gulf emirates. In fact, the status of "ally" in the War on Terror would grant a particular country the privilege to be supported militarily, financially and have its forces trained by the U.S. It would even grant the UAE and other allies the options of military industrialization within their own borders, including assembling parts of American weapon system. So in term of "trust," Washington can and should travel the extra mile with its allies, European or other, to translate the alliance into tangible steps. But that doesn't support the argument that these countries, any country with radical networks conditions, would be granted capabilities that could jeopardize U.S. national security, even though indirectly. And it is not the UAE only: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Indonesia, and in general, all allies, could present such complexity.
Britain and UAE
An argument was made about discriminating between the UAE and the UK in terms of who is a better ally in the War on Terror so that they can benefit from U.S. offers in international business. The argument itself doesn't fit the comparative parameters. For the critics of the contract didn't raise the choice between Britain and the Emirates as a reason behind their concerns regarding the choice. The issue is not about London being a better ally in the War on Terror than Dubai. It is about the deployment of Salafist organizations and Khumeinist agencies within that federation of monarchies. But since the architects of the PR campaign, not necessarily the Administration - on behalf of the agreement are naturally inclined to use any argument to win the bid, including twisting geopolitical realities for a business deal, it is important not to let the argument have a free ride unchecked, at least for future similar crisis. My point is simple: Yes, the United Kingdom's strategic commitments and integration in the War on Terror are more advanced than those of the UAE. Even if this isn't the real issue, these are the reasons why London's position is higher:
a) Great Britain is listed as a target by al Qaida, not the UAE;
b) Toni Blair was sitting in the U.S. Congress when President Bush declared war on the Taliban in October 2001, not the monarchs of the UAE;
c) The UK has a clear strategy against the Jihadist-Terrorists, not the Emirates; and
d) The Prime Minister of the Isles declared the ideology of al Qaida as terrorist and criminal, not Dubai's rulers.
These, plus many other considerations, grant Britain a clear status of strategic ally in the war with the Jihadists over the UAE's somewhat cooperation against al Qaida.
UAE and other Arab "allies"
Another argument was made about how Washington shouldn't reject a deal with a company -just because it is owned by an "Arab" government - in this case the UAE.
Well, had the deal been with Jordan, the "grade" could have been different. The Hashemite government is now ideologically engaged against al Qaida. The King rejected the Takfir doctrine, a key weapon in the Jihadists mobilization. Dubai is still silent on it. Amman paid the price in blood when Zarqawi attacked its downtown few months ago. To be more sophisticated in the analysis, al Qaida attacked targets inside Saudi Arabia, but Riyadh didn't engage the radical clerics yet. So it is not about Arab or not Arab, Muslim or not Muslim. It is essentially about the strategic determination among U.S. allies, to climb the ladder of counter-Jihadism to the end. Below that level, catching al Qaida operatives from time-to-time shouldn't provide the vital "security clearance" to the U.S. hinterland's access points.
Administrative versus security
In the original explanation of the deal, officials reassured people with concerns that there was no threat coming from the UAE because "the company is to manage the administrative space of the ports operations exclusively, not the security areas."
While the argument is logical, that isn't the logic of the would-be terrorists. Bureaucracy and security are intertwined when it comes to strategic penetration. Al Qaida teams aren't going to play a Hollywoodian James Bond movie and we're not going to necessarily see Dubai CEOs jumping on a freight boat strapped with kilograms of TNT. Things are not square and triangular in the terrorism business, but more fluid. The Jihadists won't be that obvious in their use of a potential infiltration. The deeper danger of penetration will be more complex: First, the enemy will penetrate from the UAE end, aided by Salafi or even Khumeinist sympathizers. This first line of defense could be breached by hiring elements to form a network inside the company, or subcontracted "hostile" entities in the future. Second, while moving inside the layers of the "management," the "net" could then hire elements coming from the American side. If we project that Jihadists are operating inside the U.S., a UAE company "managing" six main U.S. ports would be a first rate opportunity for them to "connect." Hence, one can project that once a "network" installs itself inside the corporation, it would be able to recruit U.S. citizens and residents sympathizers with or part of the movement. A bridge would thus be established between the outside cells and the inside cells through a perfectly legitimate outlet.
Action would come once the bridge is operational. It could develop into multiple directions. General intelligence and spying in the U.S. is only one possibility. Storing material in these sensitive areas is two. Learning about the security systems in these ports from the administrative end is three. Disrupting national security operations is four. The deeper the layers, the wider possibilities would open to the Jihadists. But the initial "hole" is what allows the chain to develop.
Officials have assured the public that a thorough process of security check has been accomplished. I do not doubt the efforts and I can project how meticulous it was and remains. The question is: "what" was checked? If, oversimplifying - the bureaucrats CV's were reviewed, it is less likely that a Zarqawi equivalent would be posting his bio online: al Qaida basic manuals would prevent it. So, would U.S. authorities be able to watch salient activities "inside" the administrative part of the deal? Most likely, but the threat doesn't start there, it debuts outside the company, on the UAE side, that is inside a sovereign nation, albeit ally. There, U.S. agencies do not have legal ground to inspect the lower layers of the potential threat. Only their counterparts can, hence the risk. So the problem isn't where America's agencies have the upper hand, inside the ports and within the company, but inside the UAE and within the layers of recruitment. And there is where the enemy would be awaiting for his moment.
Al Qaida and Iranian penetration threat
By this stage in the War on terror, the U.S. is targeted by two powers: the al Qaida led Salafists and the Iran controlled Khumeinists. Both are omnipresent in the UAE. The Salafists have manifested their presence before and after 9/11. Reports about sympathies are abundant. UAE efforts to curb their influence were indeed been noticeable, but no major state-led offensive has waged a systematic campaign as in Jordan. Individual al Qaida supporters have been sought after, but Jihadism wasn't outlawed. On the other hand, the Emirates have been infiltrated by Iranian services for decades. These two streams are the reason for why assigning U.S. Ports management is a matter of national security. However, these realities need to be checked and evaluated as a prelude to re-reading the contract with Dubai's DP World. For a blunt rejection of the agreement based on domestic and generally uninformed politics is not the way to go. A rational and healthy process of review should look into the strategic roots of future Terror not the current static situation.
Following are few recommendations:
1) Building alliance with the UAE
Regardless of the Ports takeover project, a U.S. policy to strengthen the anti-Terror alliance with Dubai is a must. It is consistent not only with the U.S. government general strategies since 9/11 but is specifically needed in view of the location, position, resources and will of the government and people of the UAE. The Emirates have a great potential of joining the front-liners in the War on al Qaida, along with Iraq, Jordan and potentially a free government in Lebanon. Progressive forces within the UAE, along with many businesses have shown clear intention to join the world community in modernization and resistance to fundamentalism. It is towards these particular sectors that the U.S. commitment must concentrate its efforts. Building a greater alliance with the UAE consists of extending military, security and diplomatic support to its Government in as much as it manifest a will to assist, join, and use its resources in the War on terror.
Washington's strategic choice of winning the minds and hearts of Arab societies is crucial. But such advances must first be embodied via a real cultural and political alliance, before it can be translated into capitalist privileges. A scale of engagement with the allies is warranted. The more the ally engages it self in rooting out the ideology of the enemy, the more it solidifies its alliance in the War in terror. And that is the door leading to financial rewarding deeper in U.S. layers.
2) Levels of gratification
If the UAE is to be rewarded for its progress in that path, it should be proportional to the levels it has reached. One, Washington is already granting the UAE a security preferential treatment in return for Dubai's facilitation for the U.S. Navy and other arms. Second, the U.S. can open its domestic markets for investments short of the sectors sensitive to national security: Entertainment, automobile manufactures, tourism, nutrition, energy, etc. to name a few. If "rewarding is a must" why to corner this friendship with national security? Even during WWII, the U.S. didn't offer such deals to its closest allies. Why not asking Saudi Arabia to manage America's public school system? Because radical clerics would transform it into madrassas: Why not asking Qatar to takeover the management of C-Span, PBS and NPR? Because the same Qatari companies that finances al Jazeera would take over the public airwaves. Not all allies are the same, not all forces within some allied countries are our allies too.
3) Focus the debate and de-politicize it
It is of essence for the debate in the War on terror not to sink instantly in domestic politics, when the debated issue is essentially on national security. The Dubai case is striking: Instead of looking into the actual issue: is there a Jihadi threat yes or no, the spasms were about which foreign policy should we adopt. Instead of analyzing the measurement of penetration and infiltration, commentators dove into the timing of announcing the project and the intentions of the Administration. It is obvious that the latter is waging a relentless war on terror that it had spoken against Islamic fundamentalism, and that it targets the groups that produce Jihadism. The issue at hand is to determine, with good faith, if the U.S. can or cannot strike at the deeper layers of future Jihad in partnership with the UAE. In short, is Dubai as a Government ready to uproot that threat from its end, as Jordan, the UK or Australia does, or has it not reached that capability and intention yet. Here is the real debate. Both the Administration and its critics on this issue have to concentrate on where the danger is coming from. For only then, and calmly, both sides can determine, for the sake of America's security, if the gates to our hinterland can be opened or not by using the Emirates window. Neither Washington nor Dubai should feel bad about an initially analytical conclusion, if we assume that they are real allies.
1. The general Terror threat to U.S. port system has been and remains - regardless of the Dubai deal - about the capacity of terrorists to strike inside the Harbors. But the specific potential threat emanating from the current crisis is different in nature: it is about an additional layer of terror risk that could be produced by a Jihadist breach via a commercial transaction.
2. A solution to the crisis is to examine the very specific matter of Jihadi penetration inside UAE and to evaluate it. If indeed the threat exists and could transplant itself to targets within the U.S., then measures have to be taken. In this case, these measures would include special legislation in the UAE and a testing period for it. If the implementation of these measures is successful, the upgrade of the country conditions could be done, and hence a deal could be safe. If neither the measures are taken, nor they are successful, then logically, such deal would present national security hazards. (See interview on MSNBC.)
I hope the extension granted by the company to the Administration will give all parties enough space to study how the Jihadists might play that game and how we can disrupt it. Everything else, from money to politics, is less relevant.
— Walid Phares holds degrees in law and political science from Saint Joseph University and the Lebanese University in Beirut, a Masters in international law from the Universite de Lyons in France and a Ph.D. in international relations and strategic studies from the University of Miami.
He has taught and lectured at numerous universities worldwide, practiced law in Beirut, and served as publisher of Sawt el-Mashreq and Mashrek International. He currently teaches Middle East political issues, ethnic and religious conflict, and comparative politics at Florida Atlantic University.
Dr. Phares has written seven books on the Middle East and published hundreds of articles in newspapers and scholarly publications such as Global Affairs, Middle East Quarterly, and Journal of South Asian and Middle East Studies. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, NBC, CBS, ABC, PBS, and BBC as well as on radio broadcasts.
Aside from serving on the boards of several national and international think tanks and human rights associations, Dr. Phares has testified before the US Senate Subcommittee on the Middle East and South East Asia and regularly conducts congressional and State Department briefings.
Dr. Phares is a senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.
© 2006 Walid Phares
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