The Emirates’ Maritime Balkan Expansion and the Palestinian Factor

The ruler of the United Arab Emirates cast his eye on Montenegro’s Port of Bar five years ago. Now, a deal for the UAE to acquire its first Adriatic seaport is finally in the works, DEBKA Weekly reports. Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic recently visited Abu Dhabi and, last week, business representatives of the royal Al-Nahyan family sat down in the capital of Podgorica to discuss a deal with Montenegran government officials.

This Adriatic port on Montenegro’s western border with Croatia is roughly 53km from the capital Podgorica. To the east, is the largest lake in the Balkans, Lake Skara, and to the west, across the sea, is Italy. The oil emirate has cast the Port of Bar as the northernmost link in the chain of ports it has acquired control of in recent years – Somalia ,Djibouti, Yemen, Asab-Eritrea, Port Sudan and, most recently, the Suez Canal. (See DEBKA Weekly 828 on Dec. 14, 2018: UAE Makes Dollar-Powered Grab for Control of the Suez Canal and Key Mid-east Ports).

Piece by careful piece, Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan (Mbz) is building up an impressive maritime transport and trading empire, with control of the main outward oil and gas sea routes from the Gulf. Starting with the ports of southern Yemen, he moved on to the Horn of Africa and the Red Sea and onward now from Suez to the Adriatic. The prince is buying these assets at cut-rate prices. He goes for strategic acquisitions in countries which are economically on the skids and makes them attractive offers to invest in their development. The flow of UAE investment is then pegged to the user rights granted him by the host governments and enabling the Gulf emirate to gradually build up control.

The Emirates initially found the Port of Bar operating at a financial loss and well below its designated capacity in a too-small local market. Of late, plans to build a Belgrade-Bar motorway and a reconstructed railway are beginning to attract business from Serbia and Central Europe. In 2013, A Turkish company purchased the Container Terminals and General Cargo of the port of Adria. Sources in the Montenegro government said this week, after the royal delegation’s visit, that the oil emirate is now interested in purchasing the Port of Bar as well as the Port of Atria, to gain control of the surrounding terminals and other facilities as well as Bar itself. The negotiations appear to be nearing completion. On Jan. 25, the new director Vladan Vucelic met with trade union representatives. He assured them that while “we still need to iron out details about severance pay and salary grades, after that, the new categorization of jobs in the Port of Bar will follow.”

The Palestinian factor is integral to the UAE’s Balkan enterprise. Its prime mover is an exiled Palestinian leader, 57-year Mohammed Dahlan, who, after being thrown out of Ramallah by Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) spent his years abroad in getting rich – or rather richer. When he was still the Palestinian Authority’s security chief, he invested in real estate in former Yugoslavia and established companies in Montenegro and Serbia. Like Abu Mazen and other Palestinian leaders, Dahlan uses family members, especially his son Shadi, to run his often shady companies, some of them fronts for various dubious ventures.

It was Shadi who helped build up his father’s network in Montenegro, including a company called Levant International. Those companies were showcased to the UAE delegation which arrived in Montenegro in 2008 in search of business opportunities.

In 2010, Dahlan and his wife were granted citizenship by the prime minister in recognition of their “friendship” and the ties they fostered between the Balkan republic and the royal family of Abu Dhabi.

Dahlan went from strength to strength and, two years later, had also brokered profitable ties between Serbia and the UAE crown prince. For this service, he was awarded Serbian citizenship, after which he traveled widely in Europe and rendezvoused with Israeli and Arab contacts. These crisscrossing business ventures generated a fertile environment for fostering Gulf ties with Israel and floating ideas for bringing the Palestinian issue to a resolution.

Dahlan’s overriding ambition has been to be crowned Palestinian leader – initially by ousting Abu Mazen and latterly as successor to the 83-yar old ruler of Ramallah, who has nothing but loathing for this upstart. Dahlan enlisted his good friend the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi for a plan to outmaneuver Abbas, which evolved into a scheme to establish a future independent Palestinian state in the Gaza Strip – not the West Bank – with accretions from northern Sinai. The Palestinian maverick also has a strong following in Gaza.

President Donald Trump’s peace envoys have reportedly incorporated this idea in his “Deal of the Century” for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Dahlan and the crown prince see in the plan another prime business opportunity. Gaza’s Mediterranean coast line would be ideal for a strategically-located Mediterranean port.

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