February 24, 2006

Dubai - Strategic Importance of the UAE

The recent firestorm over the potential sale of P & O, a British-owned operator or terminals in six major American ports, to a company controlled by the emirate of Dubai, threatens to damage an important, maybe vital security partnership between the U.S. military and the United Arab Emirates, formerly known as the Trucial States or the Trucial Coast.

Dubai is the second largest of the seven , but probably the most in tune economically with the west. It is a major banking and trading center not only in the Persian Gulf and Middle East, but around the world. Dubai's emir, Shaykh Muhammad Bin Rashid Al Maktum serves as the prime minister of the UAE. "Shaykh Mo," as he is known in defense circles, is the former minister of defense and a long-time ally of the United States. I served as the defense attache at the American Embassy when the shaykh was the defense minister.

The UAE occupies a strategic location on the Arabian peninsula, with ports on both the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman. It sits directly opposite Iran and practically straddles (with a small piece of Oman) the important Straits of Hurmuz, through which passes 25 percent of the world's oil traffic every day.

For decades, the UAE has allowed the United States Central Command access to its military facilities and commercial ports. Both are vitally important to America's ability to project military power into the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. In addition to allowing the basing of U.S. Air Force (and other coalition air forces during Operation Desert Storm) combat aircraft at Al-Dhafra air base, it allows the U.S. Navy to use the airfield at Fujayrah on the Gulf of Oman.

More importantly, however, is access to the port facilities in the Persian Gulf at Mina' Jabal 'Ali and Mina' Zayid, as well as Fujayrah and Khawr Fakhan in the Gulf of Oman. It is access to these world-class ports that allows the U.S. Navy to operate effectively in this part of the world. The port at Mina' Jabal 'Ali is so large it is visible from space with the naked eye - it is one of the few ports in the world that can dry dock an aircraft carrier. Without the excellent logistics and maintenance available in the UAE's ports, American ships would have to return to the United States for major maintenance.

The UAE's ports are so important that the country hosts more U.S. Navy port calls than any other foreign country in the world. When I was the defense attache, I had a five-person Port Liaison Element at the embassy that did nothing but arrange these port calls. The Central Command had two officers in Dubai that did nothing but arrange logistics and pay the bills. While the Central Command's Navy headquarters is in Bahrain, it's ships use Emiri ports - with no security problems.

We need to keep this in mind as we discuss the impending sale of P & O to Dubai.