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An Open Letter to Kimberly

An expatriate American’s view of Dubai and the Ports World controversy

By Herb Stetzenmeyer

Herb Stetzenmeyer is an investment banker based in Geneva, with experience in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. He granted EV World permission to reprint his letter to his cousin, Kimberly, written in advance of her trip to the United Arab Emirate of Dubai. We offer it as another perspective on the West's relations with the Middle East.

Dear Kimberly,

I wish you a great time in Dubai next week, and there is every reason you should have one! It's a wonderful town, quite beyond most Americans' experience. And that's really where the problem begins; the problem is not with Dubai. You have asked what to expect and how to behave, and further, you have asked for my "take" on the uproar in the United States about Dubai Ports World and its purchase of P&O. I am happy to respond, but I can't do it in 25 words or less, so bear with me.

As you know I lived in the United Arab Emirates (there are 7 of them, of which Abu Dhabi and Dubai are the largest) from 1977 through 1982, and have traveled back on business ever since – often frequently, although now only occasionally. In fact, Marie-Claude and I brought up our family there, I was employed by Citibank! We spent five wonderful years in Dubai, and would happily have stayed longer.

Dubai is the most international, multi-cultural city I have ever lived in, and its ruling Maktoum family the most benevolent and enlightened royal family one could ever encounter. They are serious business people, and as such, understand the pragmatic importance of commercial and cultural intercourse. They exemplify all that is good in commerce. People from all over the world go to Dubai, as I did, to work (and play), to raise families, and to raise their own standards of living. You see this in every ethnic community that goes there—British, European, Arab, Indian, Pakistani, Philipino, Pan Asian, and even African. They are all welcomed, treated with respect, and offered traditional Arab (classical Bedouin, if you will) hospitality. The only caveat is that one must behave according to generally accepted norms of civilized behavior.

You don't have to be a Muslim to enjoy the privileges of living and working in Dubai. Islamic values and traditions are imposed on no one. Quite to the contrary! Unlike some other restrictive jurisdictions, women are free to drive automobiles, there is complete freedom of worship and education, and non-Muslims are permitted to consume alcohol if they so desire. Alcohol is permitted in restaurants and nightclubs, and there are lots of them. Foreigners are even afforded "Liquor Permits" so that they can buy booze and take it home. It's called Tolerance… although there's Zero tolerance for drunken driving.

I could imagine a sign at Immigration that might say, "You are Welcome in Dubai. Here, are the Rules: (1) We won't tell you what to believe or how to live, and you won't tell us what to believe or how to live. We're all on this planet for a very short time, and we all have one God anyway. (2) As long as everyone respects everyone else, you are all welcome. But if you do not abide by normal civilized codes of conduct, your visa will be cancelled and you will be sent home. No drugs. No crime. The basic Ten Commandments --or something like it -- will do, thank you. (3) Now let's get to work!"

So point Number #1 is, enjoy yourself, Kimberly. Enjoy shopping in the suqs and malls, enjoy the beaches, the dunes, the sea, and the slopes. Yes, you can ski and ice skate in Dubai. Enjoy the multicultural atmosphere and rejoice in how many different ways humanity can express itself. Just do so in a normal, respectful manner, with tolerance for the cultural sensitivities of others… as you would do at home. You wouldn't wear a bikini in the Dubai Gold Suq any more than you would in downtown Nashville.

Point #2, as to the brouhaha over the purchase of P & O by Dubai Ports World, I am completely flabbergasted by the ignorance and arrogance surrounding the whole matter… and especially the media's incompetence in reporting it. It's probably the first time I have ever agreed with the Bush Administration on anything. Perhaps the Bushies might have anticipated the uproar by politicians who think that the U.A.E. has links to Al Qaeda, and perhaps they have contributed to the paranoia by linking virtually all Muslim fundamentalism to terrorism, and Al-Qaeda and WMD to Saddam Hussain, but on this one I have to say the Bush Administration is not wrong.

This is a normal commercial transaction, which anyone who watches CNBC or CNN -- or reads newspapers -- would have known about for many months. This should have taken no one by surprise. It came as a result of bidding war for P & O, a major shipping company, which Dubai Ports World finally won. (It's interesting that it was only the politicians who were surprised, the Bushies included!) It was not a Halliburton-type situation where the Bush Administration awarded no-bid contracts to their buddies. It is a normal commercial transaction that could have been done with a Spanish or German or Greek company without raising an eyebrow. But because the new owner of P & O is located in the United Arab Emirates, it has become an American national security issue!

Further, it is outrageous to me how the media has persisted in perpetuating the myth that the U.A.E. has "known Al-Qaeda links." It absolutely does not. Did one or more terrorist have U.A.E. nationality? Yes. The fact is, most Al-Qaeda terrorists have had British nationality! Did one or more terrorists transit the U.A.E.? Yes. But Dubai has one of the largest airports in the world, connecting East and West. Millions of people go through Dubai. And, by the way, the Al-Qaeda guy that was caught in the U.A.E. was tracked by the U.A.E. authorities themselves, on their own initiative, not by anyone else. The U.A.E. has a better Counter Terrorism Unit than Jack Bauer!

I recall the time when some terrorists hijacked a Lufthansa Boeing 737 and landed in Dubai. I don't know what they were thinking. Sheikh Mohammed (now Ruler of Dubai, but then Defense Minister) directed the rescue of the hostages and the capture of the terrorists himself, dressed as an aircraft cleaner! These guys suffer neither fools nor terrorists on their territory, and they're not afraid of them either. So let's stop this nonsense about the U.A.E. having "known links" to terrorism.

I grant that the Bush Administration has itself to blame for having hyped up a lot of the hysteria in the first place. It's no wonder the average American recoils when he hears the words "Arab" or "Muslim." The Bushies want us to believe Islamic terrorists are around every corner (although they haven't done such a great job catching them). But fear goes a long way in politics, and here is where we start to go wrong. My greatest fear is that in our collective ignorance about the outside world in general and the Muslim world in particular, and the arrogance with which we deal with those realities, we end up doing things that are precisely counter to our own best interests. We do have enemies in the Arab and Muslim worlds, so it would seem to me that we could use all the friends we can get! Why do we make enemies so unnecessarily? Why can't we afford the same kind of tolerance to Dubai that Dubai affords to us and to the international business community?

I find it interesting, for example, that we love democracy so much we are willing to impose it on others, but when Hamas wins a clean democratic election fair & square, we decide we don't want to deal with them -- or even allow them to access to their own legitimate tax revenues!

Likewise, we love our capitalism, but when an Arab country, with a leading expertise in managing ports, exercises its commercial right and good business sense to purchase a company that has existing contracts in the U.S., all of a sudden we go nuts. I mean it's not as though Dubai Ports World has taken over the U.S. Coast Guard, or ATF, or the FBI or Customs, or Homeland Security. They just manage ports… as they have done for generations. They have miles and miles of ports over there, and they know how to schedule ships and move boxes around as well as anyone. But security policies and procedures surely remain the responsibility of the U.S. government. And, Dubai Ports World cooperates closely with the U.S. government in inspecting U.S.-bound cargoes even before they are shipped! What's the big damn deal?

Our ignorance, I'm afraid, is exceeded only by our arrogance, and the mix of the two fuels the fires. No wonder Bin Ladin speaks of "Crusaders" attacking Islam from all sides. No wonder he talks of Western hypocrisy. How would we see it were we in their shoes? Dubai is an international trading town with legitimate international business interests. Why should we want prevent it from doing what it does best? What else would we want them to do? They are "Coalition Partners" in good standing, for goodness sake. We re-supply our warships on their quays! How to presume they present a security threat? And, by the way, Bin Ladin hates the Dubai people almost as much as he hated Saddam Hussein… so let's forget once and for all about the "known Al-Qaeda links."

If we keep treating moderate, business-oriented, oil producing, Arab countries like the United Arab Emirates as "axes of evil," we will surely create a self-fulfilling prophecy of a "War of Civilizations." One thing for sure is that Osama bin Ladin is enjoying every minute of this. We keep doing his work for him.

Well, enough of that. Enjoy Dubai, Kimberly. You will be secure, and you have my wholehearted blessing and best wishes for a pleasant holiday. I wish I could go with you.

Your cousin, Herb

EDITOR'S NOTE: Upon publication of his letter, Mr. Stetzenmeyer sent EV World the following Stratfor analysis of current U.S. Middle East policy

Times Article Viewed: 7834
Published: 02-Mar-2006


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