Sultan Ahmed Bin Sulayem, the Chairman and Managing Director of Dubai Ports and the Jebel Ali Free Zone, does not believe that U.S. prohibitions against trade with Iran will affect business in the Persian Gulf. In an exclusive interview with the Risk Report, the 41-year-old, American-educated Chairman says that as far as he is concerned, companies in Dubai are “free to trade with anyone.”
“Politics is politics and business is business,” Bin Sulayem explains, “and I’m a supporter of business.” Dubai only prohibits trade in two cases: Arab league goods to Israel because of the Arab boycott, and goods to Iraq because of the U.N. embargo. “We only abide by an embargo if the U.N. has instructed us to do so,” he says.
Today, there are no restrictions on U.A.E. trade with Iran. “The U.S. embargo against Iran doesn’t affect business here; we deal with countries from all over and Iran is still our number one trading partner,” says Bin Sulayem. He believes the U.S. embargo cannot prevent American goods from reaching Iran. Consumer goods are especially hard to stop, he says, pointing out that American products still get to Cuba and Iraq despite U.S. and U.N. embargoes. “The boycott on Iraq is not working. Iraq gets what it needs because people will sell to Saddam.”
The Chairman also wonders how the United States can expect to control its technology after it leaves America’s shores. “If IBM sells large volumes of computers abroad and they end up in Iran, how can you stop it or punish IBM?” he asks. He points out that American high-tech military exports to Israel have been diverted to China. “Whom can you trust? Even selling to your ally carries a risk of diversion,” he argues. Unless the whole world agrees to stop trading with Iran, the U.S. embargo will never work, he says. “At the end of the day, American companies will be the ones hurt most by the boycott….”
Trade relations between the United Arab Emirates and Iran remain strong despite the territorial dispute over Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunb Islands in the Persian Gulf. In 1992, the U.A.E. accused Iran of annexing Abu Musa, and Tehran refuses to discuss the status of the other islands. The U.A.E. is “actively pursuing peaceful means to address its differences with Iran,” Sulayem says. Meanwhile, trade continues to grow. “It’s easy for Americans to say from 7,000 kilometers away what we should do with Iran, but it’s not easy for us only 12 hours of sailing away we must coexist with Iran because we cannot change our geography.”
Bin Sulayem encourages companies from around the world to set up shop in Jebel Ali and to enjoy the tax shelter and trade privileges. He expects rapid growth and the need for expansion within two years. “What we desire is more high-tech trade, and that’s one reason why we are opening an office in Los Angeles for the Dubai Commerce and Tourism Promotion Board. We realize that there is a perception problem in the United States.”