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Wealthy Arab nation a conundrum for Bush

The United Arab Emirates - a tiny country at the heart of a huge political storm - is a tough place to categorize.

Two of its citizens were among the Sept. 11 hijackers. It doesn't recognize Israel. Of the six Persian Gulf monarchies, it has been "the least active on democratic reform," a congressional report says.

Viewed in another light, the UAE is one of the most progressive Arab nations.

Its 1-million citizens enjoy free college educations. Women serve in the army. Its world-class shopping, hotels and golf courses make it a top tourist and meeting spot, where former President Bill Clinton reportedly has been paid up to $300,000 to speak at conferences.

Clinton's spouse, however, is among the many critics of a $6.8-billion deal that would give Dubai Ports World, partly owned by the UAE government, control of ports in New York, Miami and four other U.S. cities. New York Sen. Hillary Clinton said port security is "too important" to entrust to foreign governments, while President Bush and other backers say canceling the contract would send the wrong signal to America's Arab allies.

Whatever the outcome, Bush "has painted himself into a corner" with his repeated insistence that undemocratic Arab governments breed terrorism and must be reformed, one expert said.

"That's what makes this (ports deal) so confusing to the American people," said Rachel Bronson, director of Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Even in this region of authoritarian states, the UAE has shown the least proclivity to experiment with some sort of opening of its political system. If you buy into the idea that reform in the Middle East is the answer, the UAE is a hard sell."

Covering an area slightly smaller than the state of Maine, Dubai and six other emirates that make up the UAE boast almost a tenth of the world's known oil reserves. Petro-wealth has transformed a group of tiny pearl-fishing villages into what has been called "Disney World meets the 1001 Arabian Nights."

Dubai, the commercial center, has a skyline that rivals Manhattan's and a gold market that runs for block after glittering block. At the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab - the world's most extravagant hotel - rooms start at $1,600 and gawkers can't even step in the lobby without paying.

The government has spent billions on schools, hospitals, public housing and superhighways. Religious and ethnic tolerance have been key in attracting workers from Pakistan and other countries.

However, the UAE is among 14 nations that the U.S. State Department says are not doing enough to stop international human trafficking - what Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice calls "a modern form of slavery."

Among the most controversial practices has been the use of foreign boys to race camels, a popular sport. Camel jockeys as young as 4 have been sexually abused, denied schooling and starved to keep their weight down. One child was trampled to death by the camel he was riding.

Although the UAE has taken steps to ban underage jockeys, most of whom come from poor African and Asian nations, its efforts to eliminate that and other forms of human trafficking do not meet even "minimum standards," a State Department report says.

The UAE also has a spotty, though much improved, record in cracking down on terrorism and nuclear proliferation.

The emirates were a key transfer point for shipments of nuclear components that a Pakistani scientist sold to Iran, Libya and North Korea. And the UAE was one of three countries (along with Saudia Arabia and Pakistan) that recognized the extremist Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.

During that period, al-Qaida activists are thought to have spent time in the emirates. Members of the UAE royal family also visited Afghanistan, including a hunting camp where Osama bin Laden had been sighted.

In 1999, despite pleas from the CIA, President Clinton refused to authorize a missile strike to kill bin Laden - it was feared the missile would miss him and instead wipe out "half of the royal family of the UAE," as one U.S. military adviser later put it.

On the other hand, the emirates did ask the Taliban to turn over bin Laden. And after Sept. 11, the State Department says, the UAE provided "staunch assistance" in the war on terror and "aggressively" enforced antimoney laundering regulations.

"The UAE is the major banking center in the area, and they realized that unless they got serious about fixing their banking laws, their entire economic base would collapse," Bronson said.

Since the 1991 Gulf War, the UAE has had a close defense relationship with the United States, partly to guard against any threat from Iran, which lies just 50 miles across the Strait of Hormuz.

Jebel Al in Dubai is the largest foreign port of call for the U.S. Navy, and other ports and air bases are used to train pilots and provide support to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The UAE is currently taking delivery of 80 American-made F-16s worth more than $8-billion.

Relations, though, have been strained over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The UAE has no formal ties with Israel, but has spent heavily on projects in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Among them is the $55-million Sheik Zayed City - named after the UAE's late ruler - which includes stores, a mosque and 736 apartments in Gaza.

Like other Arab nations, the UAE accuses the United States of a double standard when it comes to Israel - demanding Muslim states comply with international agreements, yet condoning Israeli settlement of occupied lands.

But in a booming place where Rolls-Royces are raffled off at Dubai's airport, most residents are less interested in politics than they are in making money. As one joke goes, "the United Arab Emirates is a duty-free shop masquerading as a country."

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at