UAE Free Trade Talks Postponed

Free trade talks between the United States and the United Arab Emirates were postponed Friday, a day after a Dubai company succumbed to pressure and backed out of a deal to take over operations at six major American ports.

The talks, which were supposed to begin Monday, were postponed because both sides need more time to prepare, according to an announcement from the office of U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman.

"In order to get an agreement that both sides can successfully implement, we need additional time to prepare for the next round of negotiations," USTR spokeswoman Neena Moorjani said in a statement.

She refused to say whether the postponement was related to the controversy over port security that engulfed the Bush administration after approval was given for a state-owned UAE company to run some port operations in the United States.

The company, DP World, said Thursday that it would transfer operation of the six ports to a U.S. entity. The move came amid a storm of protest in the Republican-controlled Congress.

President Bush, who had strongly supported plans for DP World to operate the ports, said Friday that he was concerned that criticism of the deal would send the wrong message to U.S. allies in the Middle East.

"In order to win the war on terror we have got to strengthen our friendships and relationships with moderate Arab countries in the Middle East," he said.

Moorjani said that the postponement of the latest round of talks, which had been scheduled to take place in the United Arab Emirates, was not unusual.

She noted that in just the past few months, free trade talks with Ecuador had been postponed three different times, talks with Panama had been postponed twice and a round of scheduled negotiations with Colombia had also been postponed.

Moorjani said that both the United States and the UAE remain "strongly committed" to making progress in the negotiations on a free trade agreement. Those talks were launched in late 2004.

The administration has aggressively pursued free trade deals to lower trade barriers to U.S. exports and to support U.S. foreign policy goals.

The administration is seeking free trade agreements with a number of Middle Eastern countries in hopes that opening up the world's largest economy to unrestricted trade with those nations will provide economic support for a movement toward greater democracy in the region.

The administration in October reached a free trade agreement with Oman.