Customs Deal Gives Big Advantage to UAE Over U.S.

Despite an effort last month in the House to block it, the U.S. and the United Arab Emirates moved forward with a security-data exchange deal last week to pave the way for controversial U.S. Customs and Border Protection pre-clearance for passengers flying to America from Abu Dhabi International Airport.

"This agreement falls in line with both parties' commitments to protect their borders from any risks, whereby we seek to strengthen theses two countries' positions as safe destinations for travel and business," Director General of Abu Dhabi Customs Saeed Ahmed Al Muhairi said after inking the data-sharing pact with Kevin K. McAleenan, acting deputy commissioner of CBP.

"…This enables the realization of both parties' common interests which then would contribute in supporting customs work, the process of border security and in facilitating the flow of legitimate trade across borders."

An amendment offered by Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.) to prohibit the use of funds for pre-clearance operations in Abu Dhabi was approved by voice vote on June 5. It was added to the Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill, which has been sitting in the Senate since mid-June.

But the objection to the pre-clearance facility, which would speed up the customs process for international travelers, isn't so much about security as it is about disgruntled U.S. airlines and accusations that the Obama administration is helping a foreign government corner the international travel market.

"The logic seems to be simple. Clearing travelers abroad before they reach U.S. soil reduces the threat of terrorism, costs to the United States' taxpayers for processing troublesome travelers," House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade Chairman Ted Poe (R-Texas) said at a hearing to study the facility plan Wednesday.

"If terrorists are gonna be smart enough to pull off a terrorist attack against us, they'll be smart enough to go to a nearby airport that doesn't have a pre-clearance facility like Dubai, so the national security benefit seems to be unclear at the moment," he added.

"What seems to be clear is that a pre-clearance facility comes across as hurting United States air carriers."

Meehan, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) and 148 other members from both parties wrote Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in April to question why the U.S. would pick Abu Dhabi for pre-clearance status when, unlike any other nation that enjoys the convenience of a CBP facility, no American air carrier services the UAE capital.

"This move would be a clear benefit for Etihad Airways – a company wholly-owned by the UAE – in its goal to transform Abu Dhabi Airport into a global hub whose annual passenger capacity will increase from 12.5 million to 30 million by 2017," Meehan and DeFazio wrote. "What is less clear is why the Department – knowing that no U.S. carriers currently serve Abu Dhabi – would agree to provide this obvious competitive advantage to a foreign carrier at the expense of the domestic airline industry and its over 500,000 workers."

"As strong proponents of competition and the free market, we strongly object to the government’s proposal to create an uneven playing field for market participants. We further object to the fact that in this instance, the government has so obviously chosen to intervene in support of a foreign government over the interests of a vital U.S. industry and workforce."

Poe said at the hearing "the United States government wants to contribute to competitive advantage over U.S. air carriers."

"One airline tells me it gets 90 percent of its profits from international travelers, in fact that's where it makes money. It then uses the profit margins from international travel to offer low prices on domestic travel. Generally speaking, domestic travel is not profitable for American airline industry," the chairman said. "So, if the Abu Dhabi pre-clearance facility moves forward, it's hard to see how this doesn't lead to higher prices for domestic U.S. flights and Americans losing their jobs."

DHS told lawmakers it first suggested Dubai, the UAE's largest city and glittering resort and business hub, for a pre-clearance facility, but it was the UAE that in turn suggested Abu Dhabi. U.S. airlines fly in and out of Dubai.

"There is now no guarantee that even if U.S. carriers wanted to serve Abu Dhabi UAE would let it," Poe said.