US Treasury in protectionist mode?


Will the UAE and other Gulf countries be forced to unwind the big investments they have recently made in the US economy? Will there be a fire-sale of assets held by Gulf investors in sectors as far apart as Wall Street and Las Vegas?

The danger of such a forced disposal programme, which would involve billions of dollars worth of US assets, is distant, but is creeping closer with each leak from the Treasury about its deliberations on foreign investment.

It might only take one more controversial share purchase by a Middle East company or sovereign wealth fund, or one policy lurch by a Congressman or presidential candidate, to make the possibility more imminent.

The Treasury is reconsidering the rules on foreign investment, and is facing pressure from a Congress that appears vulnerable to lobbying from the protectionists of US politics. It now looks as though it will recommend that all investments, even small ones, will have to be investigated by the Committee on Foreign Investment (Cfius).

That trend goes against the perceived thinking in the UAE. Senior businessmen here think that the P&O debacle in 2006 was the low point of trade relations between the two countries, and that things have freed up since then. The $7bn investment by the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority in Citicorp, waved through when the bank was desperate for new funds last year, as well as a stack of other investments in the US property and leisure sectors, were cited as an example of this new maturity on the part of the Americans.

But that may not be the case. If the Treasury forces Cfius to investigate all equity holdings by foreign companies, it will give out the wrong signals, at the worst possible time for the economy.

If a Gulf company were considering a major investment in the US, which could perhaps safeguard thousands of American jobs, why should it submit itself to the inconvenience, even indignity, if having to plead its case before a panel of protectionist and xenophobic American senators?

The Americans should consider their own economic weakness, and the benefits of free and open trade relations, before any imaginary threat to their economic security.