There was no uproar when it was a British company that was taking over commercial port operations in Baltimore and five other U.S. cities.
But now that a company from the United Arab Emirates is stepping in, James Zogby says, politicians from both parties are playing on anxieties about terrorism in hopes of scoring at the polls.
"There's no question that this is the confluence of three factors: an election year, fear and the fact that an Arab country is involved," the president of the Arab American Institute said yesterday. "And that, combined, makes a very lethal brew."
Arab-Americans say a mix of bigotry and political opportunism is fueling opposition to the $6.8 billion sale last week of the London-based Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Co. to Dubai Ports World. P&O; runs shipping terminals in Baltimore, New York, Philadelphia, New Jersey, Miami and New Orleans.
The Bush administration has described the United Arab Emirates as a key ally in the Middle East. The deal passed a review by the Departments of Defense, Justice and Homeland Security, among other federal agencies, and President Bush has vowed to veto any efforts to derail the sale.
But critics in Congress and beyond point out that at least one of the hijackers of Sept. 11, 2001, came from the United Arab Emirates and that others used it as a financial and operational base. The government supported the Taliban before the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, and some allege that the nation was an important transfer point for nuclear components shipped by a Pakistani scientist to Iran, Libya and North Korea.
This week, Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, called the leadership of the Persian Gulf nation a "rogue government" that had "allowed terrorists to pass freely through their country."
In an op-ed piece in The Philadelphia Inquirer yesterday, Sen. Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican, wrote that the nation had "long been influenced by the Islamic fascist movement."
Zogby, in Saudi Arabia yesterday, called such language "shameful and irresponsible and uninformed."
"If I was giving advice to Karen Hughes right now," he said, referring to the assistant secretary of state now in the United Arab Emirates, "I'd say pack your bags and go back to Texas. This shot your effort to hell.
"People here are saying, 'If this is the way they talk about the United Arab Emirates, given all they've done to work with the United States, then what's the point of trying to be a friend?'"
The United Arab Emirates contributed troops to the U.S.-led coalition in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and is sending humanitarian aid to Iraq. The United States bases U-2 spy planes, Global Hawk unmanned surveillance aircraft and K-10 aerial refueling planes in the country.
"In everything that we have asked and worked with them on, they have proven to be very, very solid partners," Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters this week.
Dubai Ports World was the first company in the Middle East to join the Container Security Inititiative, through which U.S. agents inspect U.S.-bound freight.
Peter Brookes, senior fellow for national security affairs at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said there were legitimate concerns over the sale of P&O.;
"I don't think it's xenophobia or racism or bigotry," Brookes said. "... Some people have some real national security concerns with this, there is the political element ... and I think there's also the emotional side."
Brookes was backing congressional hearings to illuminate the process by which the administration approved the sale.
Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington, said politicians seemed to be "falling over one another trying to determine who's going to have the most anti-Arab, most anti-Muslim attitude."
The Associated Press contributed to this article.