Arab firm to delay ports takeover amid security uproar

A United Arab Emirates company offered today to delay part of its £4bn (€5.8bn) takeover of six US ports from a British firm to give the Bush administration more time to convince politicians the deal posed no security risks.

The surprise announcement relieves some pressure from a stand-off between President George Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress, which has threatened to block the deal because of the UAE’s purported ties to terrorism.

Under the offer co-ordinated with the White House, Dubai Ports World said it would agree not to exercise control or influence the management over US ports pending further talks with the Bush administration and Congress. It did not indicate how long it will wait for these discussions to take place.

The company said US operations affected by the deal account for roughly 10% of its overall value, noting that its purchase of London-based Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation covered 30 terminals in 18 countries, ferries and properties. It stressed that the sale overall would not be delayed, and British shareholders would be paid as previously planned.

The Dubai-based state-owned company said it would move forward with other parts of the deal affecting the rest of the world.

“It is not only unreasonable but also impractical to suggest that the closing of this entire global transaction should be delayed,” Dubai Ports said in a statement.

“The reaction in the US has occurred in no other country in the world,” the company’s chief operating officer, Ted Bilkey, said. “We need to understand the concerns of the people in the US who are worried about this transaction and make sure that they are addressed to the benefit of all parties. Security is everybody’s business.”

The announcement came as the political furore persisted over the deal, which was supposed to be completed in early March. Concerned about national security implications, Democrats pushed for a new 45-day investigation into the business transaction.

But the delay did not appease some of the deal’s harshest critics.

“If the president were to voluntarily institute the review and delay the contract that would obviate the need for our legislation, but a simple cooling-off period will not allay our concerns,” said Senator Charles Schumer.

But one prominent Republican who had raised concerns about the deal appeared optimistic.

“This is definitely a positive step,” said Rep Peter King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. “We’ll need more details as to the nature of the discussions that will be held and the extent of the investigation into Dubai Ports.”

Earlier, the administration sought to quell the controversy that has erupted over the last week.

“People don’t need to worry about security,” Bush said shortly before administration officials who approved the transaction told a Senate committee their 90-day review did not turn up a single national security concern to justify blocking it.

Elsewhere, New Jersey sued in federal court to block the UAE company from taking over operations at the Port Newark container terminal until the government investigated possible security risks.

The owner of the busy shipping centre, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, said it also had security concerns about the takeover and planned to file a lawsuit today to terminate the firm’s lease at the port.

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