BROOKLYN, N.Y. — The recent sale of Peninsular and Oriental Steamship Navigation Company (P&O), which operates a number of East Coast U.S. ports, to Dubai’s state-owned DP World has raised a political firestorm directed at the White House. Critics charge that the company would threaten U.S. security. Two of the 9/11 hijackers came from the United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is a constituent part.
However, many argue that such security fears are based on anti-Arab racism, and that the Bush administration itself has failed to secure American ports.
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents West Coast port workers, says the DP World controversy should be looked into but it “detracts from the real concern,” which is “the lack of real improvements in port security” since 9/11.
“American ports are full of holes,” said ILWU President James Spinosa. Federal regulations have not been observed because “the administration refuses to adequately fund port security” so that the Coast Guard can do its work, he said.
President Bush requested no new funds for port security after 9/11. His 2005 budget requested $46 million, despite Coast Guard estimates that new port regulations will cost $1.1 billion.
Less than 3 percent of the containers that come into U.S. ports are inspected. Less than 40 percent are scanned for radiation. “At every turn, this administration chooses commercial interests over port security,” Spinosa said.
Both the ILA and Teamsters, which represent workers at the affected East Coast ports, support the calls for further investigation. ILA President John Bowers said that union members are “on the frontlines of the most vulnerable and strategic gates” of “this nation’s import and export cargoes.”
Curiously, on Jan. 24, a month before an administration committee approved the deal, Bush nominated DP World senior executive Dave Sanborn of Virginia to serve as U.S. Maritime Administrator.
Generally, U.S. ports are owned by state authorities that lease operations out to private companies. Many are in charge of loading and unloading ships on the docks they lease.
Experts note that the federal government is in charge of port security, not any private company, foreign or domestic. The Customs and Border Protection Agency is responsible for checking cargo, with the Coast Guard overseeing security.
But the issue of an Arab company was a topic of conversation at one portside diner here. Docker Michael Simrano told his buddies, “It’s not the [Arab] people; it’s their government. Dubai was friends with the Taliban. The government there seems dangerous.”
His coworker across the table, who was finishing up his breakfast before going into work at the port, countered, “What does it matter? The same workers are going to do the work. It doesn’t matter who owns the company. It could be the devil. All he cares about is the cash.”
A port agent told the World that the whole situation “really smacks of xenophobia. What’s the difference if the company is owned by Dubai or China?”