updated 2/23/2006 2:56:58 PM ET 2006-02-23T19:56:58

The United States considers the United Arab Emirates an ally in the war against terrorism, and maintains an important yet politically sensitive relationship with the Persian Gulf country.

Now ensnared in a controversy over whether a UAE government-owned company should run terminals at six major American ports, the country’s oil riches, strategic location and willingness to cooperate with the U.S. military have made it an invaluable ally for Washington.

The two countries have worked together, even though the United States has been critical of its friend’s human rights standards. In a report last year, the State Department said UAE citizens do not have a right to change their government and the country restricts freedom of speech and of the press.

“The UAE is a good partner in the war on terrorism,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, during a Middle East trip. “It has been a stalwart partner. And we believe that this is a deal, a port deal, that serves the interests of the United States, serves our security interests and serves the commercial interest as well.”

Rice planned to visit Dubai, the country’s business capital, on Thursday.

U.S. military pleased
The world’s fifth-largest oil exporter, the UAE is located along the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow passage for shipping in the Persian Gulf and just a short distance from Iran’s southern coast.

The U.S. has a “superb” military relationship with the country, Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters this week. He also said U.S. forces use UAE seaports and air fields for logistics support and for training of Air Force pilots.

“In everything that we have asked and worked with them on, they have proven to be very, very solid partners,” Pace said.

In 2004, the UAE signed a trade and investment agreement with the United States.

At the same time, the UAE was one of three countries that recognized the Taliban government in Afghanistan before U.S. led-forces overthrew the regime in 2001.

Security concerns
Republican and Democratic critics of the ports deal have claimed the UAE was used as an operational and financial base for some of the Sept. 11 hijackers. Critics also contend the UAE was a transfer point for shipments of smuggled nuclear components sent to Iran, North Korea and Libya by the Pakistani nuclear engineer Abdul Qadeer Khan, who ran a nuclear proliferation ring.

Last September, a government-run think tank in Dubai said the al-Qaida network was recruiting and sinking roots in the region. Some terrorism specialists have said Dubai was an ideal logistical hub for Osama bin Laden’s network because of its cosmopolitan lifestyle and freewheeling business rules.

“Dubai is a place with few rules, but one of the few things tightly regulated is port security, and that’s why the U.S. Navy feels comfortable using Dubai more than any other port in the world,” said Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East policy.

Military specifics
The U.S. relationship with the UAE is so politically sensitive in the Gulf country that the Pentagon does not openly discuss details. Among those that Pace did not mention were:

  • Air Force U-2 spy planes and Global Hawk unmanned surveillance aircraft have been based at al-Dhafra air base, along with KC-10 aerial refueling planes. When a U-2 crashed in the UAE last June, killing the Air Force pilot, American officials did not publicly disclose the location “due to host nation sensitivities.”
  • U.S. sailors and Marines regularly make liberty calls at the port of Jebel Ali, near the UAE’s largest city, Dubai.
  • In March 2000 the UAE and the United States completed a sales agreement for 80 of the most sophisticated versions of the F-16 fighter jet.

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