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Riley: Arab port deal not happening in Alabama

By M.J. Ellington
DAILY Staff Writer

mjellington@decaturdaily.com (334) 262-1104

MONTGOMERY — Gov. Bob Riley said Tuesday he would have severe reservations about turning over management of the Port of Mobile to an Arab country, and he questioned a federal decision to approve such a move at six U.S. ports.

"I don't see this happening in Alabama," Riley said about the international deal that involves management of ports in New Orleans, Miami, Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York. "I don't even think it would be an option for the next 20 years."

President Bush vows to veto any bill that Congress might pass to stop Dubai Ports World, owned by the United Arab Emirates, from operating the ports.

The oil-rich United Arab Emirates was one of three countries in the world to recognize the Taliban at the time of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

At least two of the Sept. 11 hijackers were natives, and al-Qaida money was banked there. The United Arab Emirates is also suspected of shipping nuclear components to Iran, North Korea and Libya.

Bush is backing the deal because he says the United Arab Emirates is an ally in the war on terror. He said it sends the wrong message internationally to balk at the state-owned company operating the ports.

While Alabama has a public-private partnership with international companies at the state port, Riley said the Middle Eastern company is not an Alabama partner, and he believes management tools are in place to keep the state in charge.

Riley said the Alabama Port Authority is the final decision maker over operations at the state seaport, but the federal decision raises questions about who owns and who protects the security of companies that manage the country's ports.

"It is hard for me to imagine anyone involved with managing our ports not working very closely with Homeland Security, which would in essence give them knowledge of our security system. I think we would have to proceed very, very cautiously," Riley said.

Riley spokesman Jeff Emerson said the Port Authority is responsible for port security, and its security plan has been approved by the U.S. Coast Guard. "There is no foreign interest responsible for security at Alabama's port," Emerson said. "The companies involved in the public-private partnership joint venture can't sell their leases with the Port Authority without the authority's blanket approval."

The port deal cleared a high-level U.S. government panel, the U.S. Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, that said it is in Dubai's interest to make sure the deal works well.

Alabama in 2005 signed a public-private partnership contract with international companies to develop a container port needed for the new Airbus plant at the Port of Mobile. But Riley said the Middle Eastern company is not involved.

Area lawmakers also questioned the president's decision.

Rep. Micky Hammon, R-Decatur, said the deal raises concerns about how the government protects the security at U.S. ports. Hammon said when government does things without a lot of public input that leads to questions. "Sometimes the questioning is good," Hammon said. "I would not be comfortable with this arrangement in Alabama."

Sen. Tommy Ed Roberts, D-Hartselle, said he has a high degree of concern about the deal, but added that the Port of Mobile, owned by the state and managed by a state authority must present state contracts to the Joint Legislative Contract Review Committee. The committee could delay a contract for 45 days, a fact that Roberts said at least gives lawmakers time to ask questions about the contract and gives time for public scrutiny.

Rep. Bill Dukes, D-Decatur, said he does not believe we should set up situations that put U.S. seaports in a vulnerable situation. "We can't be isolationist, but we need to know more about what is going on. This concerns me a great deal."

Rep. Tommy Carter, D-Elkmont, Rep. Ronald Grantland, D-Hartselle and Rep. Jody Letson, D-Hillsboro, expressed similar opinions.

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