The demonising of Arabs that accompanied the near hysterical American reactions, whether coming from the mighty or the lowly, to a contractual agreement between Dubai Ports World and a British firm whereby the former would manage the latter's cargo terminals at six key American seaports, including New York City, underlined once again the shameless, if not embarrassing, racism that runs deep in American society.

The anti-Arab bashing was touched off by a belated news agency report that went overboard in describing the straightforward business transaction, concluded late last year, giving the mistaken impression that these ports were turned over to an Arab firm.

Subsequently, the media in the US was caught in a frenzy of wild and often erroneous reporting, describing the action as "controlling" or "running" key harbours on the east and south coasts of the United States.

Of all people, and to his credit, it was President George W. Bush himself who came out admirably in defence of his new Arab partners. "I want those who are questioning [the deal] to step up and explain why all of a sudden a Middle Eastern [Arab] company is held to a different standard than a Great British company," declared the president.

"I'm trying to conduct foreign policy now by saying to the people of the world, we'll treat your fairly." (This was in sharp contrast with his emotional statement after the horrific 9/11 terrorist attack when he declared, "You are either with us, or against us.")

Dubai Ports World also regrettably missed its chance to immediately explain the straightforward transaction which really is not very much unlike what foreign airlines do at American airports, according to Samir M. Haddad, who until recently was airport manager for Jordanian Airlines and Trans-Mediterranean Airlines at Kennedy International Airport in New York.

"All the luggage and cargo that our planes brought to the US were stored in our terminals until US Customs and security checked them out," much like what happens at US seaports at present.

Wrongly assumed

Jack Shaheen, author of Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies A People, explained that when one uses the word "Arab" in the US "it's like using the word fire in a crowded movie theatre". There is, he went on, "a knee-jerk, members of Congress and most of the press, all of a sudden, immediately and wrongly, assumed that the Arabs were controlling the ports".

The blatant racism emanates, in Shaheen's opinion, from the persistent American failure, politicians and the media alike, "to make any distinction between Saddam Hussain or Osama Bin Laden and the images [of an Arab] that come to mind, of screaming fanatics burning an American flag".

He also faulted Dubai Ports World for taking too long to expose the myths that were circulating. "They share some of the blame for not speaking out."

What most people in Washington missed in this tempest in a teacup was that the security of American seaports remain under the control of the Coast Guard and US Customs and Border Protection.

In fact, all cargo shipped to the United States is actually scanned at the ports of embarkation, oceans away. Equally, this particular deal was examined by a 12-agency unit called the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), which is the government body that clears all foreign investments.

Unaware

Bush jumped the gun when he declared that he would veto any attempt by Congress to derail the agreement since it turned out that he, too, was unaware of the agreement and its potential for trouble-making.

The agreement also comes at a time when the president's approval rating stood at 34 per cent, an all-time low, a factor that invites ambitious politicians from either party and especially presidential hopefuls to discredit his actions come what may.

More to the point, the quagmire that the US finds itself in Iraq, where a sectarian war appears imminent, and in Afghanistan where Osama Bin Laden and his Taliban supporters remain at large, contribute to the state of uneasiness and dissatisfaction with the course that the Bush administration has been pursuing.

The United States, according to C. Fred Bergsten, a former assistant secretary of the Treasury and director of the Institute for International Economics, warns that the ongoing debate over the significant Dubai investment, valued at $6.8 billion, "could result in real damage to US economic and security interests".

He reminds readers of The Washington Post in a column published on February 21 that the United States needs to attract "almost $1 trillion of foreign financing annually to fund our huge and growing trade and current account deficits".

The Bush administration, if not the American public, is undoubtedly aware of the significance of the United Arab Emirates since it is considered "one of the world's most prolific arms buyers and a multi-billion-dollar military market both for the United States and Western Europe."

Moreover, the country has the world's third largest oil reserves and the fifth largest gas reserves, a point that must have been well noted during last week's visit of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Abu Dhabi and her meeting with the foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Over and above, the UAE continues to serve as a safe haven to the American armada that is engaged in the "global war on terror".

George Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. He can be contacted at ghishmeh@gulfnews.com