Star-crossed lovers

By Sami Halabi

Iran's president making his first visit by an Iranian head of state in 2007 flanked by the rulers of Dubai and Abu Dhabi (Photo: WAN)

US pressure mars an ancient partnership in the Persian Gulf

When you have been in a relationship with someone for centuries, breaking up is hard to do. Sure, you may bicker over seemingly trivial problems in your marriage, but more often than not, your history with that special someone has you running back into their arms.

Take Dubai and Iran. The two were engaged in a trading love affair long before either nation even existed.

That relationship has been blossoming of late, with trade between the two increasing threefold between 2005 and 2009 to reach $12 billion, according to the Dubai Chamber of Commerce. But with the threat of new sanctions being imposed on Iran and the financial crisis stemming Dubai’s previously inflated financial ego, that could all be about to change.

No more smooth sailing

On the surface at least, recent international developments have only brought the old couple closer together, especially for Iran which, faced with economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations and the United States, has been able to use the ports of Dubai as a forwarding station to get around such impediments.

The UN has passed three sets of sanctions against Iran which encompass a wide range of materials it deems can be potentially employed in the enrichment of uranium, in addition to freezing the assets of persons it has identified as aiding Iran in its nuclear ambitions. The US has imposed its own set of more stringent sanctions and has forbidden its companies from engaging in financial and commercial transactions with the Islamic Republic.

Notwithstanding these restrictions on trade and financial activities, Iran seems to have come out relatively unscathed — so far. In April, The Wall Street Journal reported that only around $43 million in Iranian assets had been frozen in the US, which amounts to roughly a quarter of what the country makes in oil revenues in one day.

In recent years however, the US and their allies have taken a sharper aim at Iranian businesses or those that have dealings with Iran. In October 2007, Washington imposed sanctions on three large Iranian banks: Bank Melli, Bank Mellat and Bank Saderat. Since then, Iranian businesses in Dubai have been taking flak.

“The Iranian businessmen in Dubai are the ones being hammered badly by the sanctions,” says Morteza Masoumzadeh, a Dubai based-shipping agent and a vice president at the Iranian Business Council in Dubai. “The sanctions have had no effect at all on the Iranian government’s nuclear activities, as we can see, they are progressing every day.”

According to Masoumzadeh, some 400 Iranian businesses have closed since the downturn in Dubai. While he admits that some of these closures were caused by the emirate’s real estate bust, he says that “the majority of them have closed their businesses due to the restrictions on Iranian banks and the subsequent restrictions applied by the local banks.”

To make matters worse for Dubai, the past few months have seen a series of calls from Western nations — particularly America — for new and stronger UN sanctions. In March, US President Barack Obama called for sanctions to be imposed “in weeks.”

Since then, a wave of international companies have announced plans to scale back or cut ties with Iran, including international oil companies Eni, LUKOIL and Royal Dutch Shell, Indian refiner Reliance Industries, US construction and mining equipment maker Caterpillar and German carmaker Daimler, as well as KPMG, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Ernst & Young. But while these international pullouts may perhaps be a significant harbinger of things to come, it is businesses closer to home that stand to lose most.

“The [United Arab Emirates] is Iran’s most important trade partner, before Germany and China, so any sanctions would hurt both sides, especially Dubai,” says Eckart Woertz, the economics program manager at the Gulf Research Center.

The US State Department has also placed the UAE in the crosshairs, threatening in 2007 to classify the country as a “destination of diversion concern,” according to Bloomberg. The pressure seems to have worked to some degree, as last August the Emirates commandeered a boat from North Korea allegedly carrying weapons to Iran.

Arms smuggling, however, is not the concern of most traders, whose legitimate business between Dubai and Iran is threatened.

“We have tried to go through local banks here to get facilities, but we have reached the point where they prefer not to get involved with Iranian businesses,” says Masoumzadeh. His main complaint is that banks in the UAE have stopped issuing letters of credit (LC) to facilitate trade between the Emirates and their Persian neighbors.

“The UAE banks…won’t issue an LC to our overseas suppliers with the name of an Iranian port in it,” said Masoumzadeh.

The worst to come

Last month, some apparent progress was made on the international front concerning Iran’s controversial nuclear program, when the Islamic Republic inked a deal brokered by Brazil and Turkey to swap outside its borders low-grade nuclear material for enriched uranium to use in its power plants, something it had previously refused to do.

Nonetheless, the move seems to have been brushed off by the West; the next day US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that she had agreed on “a strong draft” for UN sanctions “with the cooperation of both Russia and China.”

For the Emirates though, much will depend on what course of action Abu Dhabi decides to take when it comes to implementing a further round of sanctions, or imposing stricter controls on existing activities between Iran and Dubai.

“Abu Dhabi is less reliant on the Iranian trade and has traditionally played a leading role in the foreign policy formulation of the UAE since its unification in the 1970s. Dubai, on the other hand, has concentrated more on its economic role,” says Woertz.

Abu Dhabi has also been vocally hostile towards Iran lately over a long-standing dispute about oil-rich islands in the Persian Gulf that are currently controlled by Iran.

“Occupation of any Arab land is occupation… Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights, southern Lebanon, West Bank or Gaza is called occupation and no Arab land is dearer than another,” said Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahayan to the official UAE news agency, Wakalat Anba’a al-Emarat, in reference to the islands in late April.

The burgeoning capital has already put forward some $20 billion to save its little brother Dubai from defaulting on debt repayments, with estimates of Dubai’s total debt varying from a low of $80 billion to as high as $170 billion.

“The equation for Abu Dhabi and the UAE in particular is probably the toughest equation for any country in the world,” says Hady Amr, director of the Brookings Doha Center, referring to the decision to go along with tougher sanctions against Iran. “You can’t just lend your cousin money and then tell them to quit their job.”

According to the Iranian Business Council’s Masoumzadeh, 70 percent of his business has vanished due to existing restrictions on credit facilities. “If [the United Nations Security Council] comes up with a ban restricting shipping goods to Iran, for sure the other 30 percent of our business will also go.”

But, as the old adage goes, times of crisis always breed times of opportunity. The US trade ban on Iran currently does not apply to subsidiaries of US firms dealing with Iran if they do not have an operational relationship to the parent company. Even decisions by companies like Caterpillar, which ordered its subsidiaries not to sell goods to Iran, will not have a great effect on the supply of American goods to the country, given that the secondary market can hardly be controlled.

“As far as the Dubai customs are concerned, when a printer lands at the Dubai port, whether it is an HP, Samsung or Brother; its a printer, customs officials don’t care about the brand of the product as long it is not listed with the prohibited materials,” says Masoumzadeh, who added that the same applies at ports in Kuwait, Turkey, Indonesia and Malaysia. “The American administration can send out a circular to their producers saying ‘do not ship or sell American products to Iran’… but instead of buying HP products, end users in Iran buy Samsung. The Americans have, in reality, [just] eliminated their own producers from selling more goods.”

It is easy see that short-term profits are up for the taking: given that trade between Dubai and Iran has been increasing despite the sanctions, it seems increasingly likely that as international companies pack up and move out, regional companies can take advantage of the void left behind.

“You go in, you make a lot of money and then as the political pressure mounts you make a big fuss about why you are being asked to pull out,” says Brookings’ Amr. “If you are going to be asked to pay the price, you ought to be compensated. From the world that we are in, it seems that is a pretty successful way to do business.”

So, while the West may scold Dubai for its economic infidelity in its centuries old embrace of Iran, it is likely that the Persian allure will keep the emirate close — at least until a more attractive beau comes along.

First  published in Executive Magazine’s June 2010 issue.

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