Forget oil. Now the Gulf is exporting money.
Lost amid the political furor over the Dubai ports deal is a much larger story -- a tidal wave of cash is flowing into the Middle East. And we're going to have to learn to live with it.
LONDON (FORTUNE) - Lost amid the political furor over the Dubai ports deal is a much larger story. No, we're not talking about weak Coast Guard inspections or other security-related safeguards. (I'll leave that issue for another day). Instead, it's the staggering shift in global economic power that the global commodity boom has wrought.
With oil trading at over $60 a barrel, a tidal wave of money is flowing into the Middle East. Saudi Arabia alone receives more than half a billion in petro-dollars a day (including weekends), with nearly $100 million of that coming just from the United States based on their current shipments of 1.5 million barrels to our shores each day.
Kuwait takes in more than $100 million a day, and other Gulf countries like the U.A.E., Qatar and Bahrain will also bank billions this year. Dubai itself isn't a big energy producer -- but it's the financial center of choice for all these neighboring petro-states.
The last time around there was on oil boom of this magnitude, in the 1970s, much of that cash was deposited into Western banks in New York and London or invested in huge development projects. This time around, Gulf leaders are thinking bigger.
Yes, there's money being spent on development -- Dubai boasts an indoor ski-run, man-made islands and 'six-star' hotels, and Qatar is developing a multi-billion dollar gas project. But Middle Easterners are also going on a shopping spree in Europe and the U.S., of which Dubai's purchase of U.K. ports company P&O is only a small part.
Drive by New York's Essex House and you may have noticed that its billboard now reads Jumeirah Essex House. The Central Park South landmark was bought for half a billion dollars by Dubai Holding last year. Dubai-based investment firm Istithmar, meanwhile, owns 2.4 percent of Time Warner (Research), the owner of CNNMoney.com and Fortune, as well as other U.S. assets like the Helmsley Building overlooking Grand Central Station and a big stake in discount retailer Loehmann's. Caribou Coffee, meanwhile, is majority-controlled by a Bahrain bank.
Does this mean it's more patriotic to order a venti latte from Starbucks than a cup of joe from the folks at Caribou? Not at all. The bedrock of our economic system rests on free trade, for starters. U.S. companies like Microsoft (Research), Exxon (Research), Boeing (Research), GE (Research) and all the other giants are powerful overseas players. It's not like we can go there, and not expect foreigners to want to do business here.
And if you don't buy into Adam Smith and all that or are in a protectionist mood a la France, consider that the downside of our car-centric lifestyle is shifting money and power to the countries that supply us with oil. We can't buy their oil and then refuse to do business with the suppliers -- the world doesn't work like that anymore, if it ever did. Think about that the next time you fill up your SUV.
Economist and American Enterprise Institute Fellow Phillip Swagel links this trend to a larger reality -- the gigantic U.S. trade deficit, which is expected to total 6 percent to 7 percent of GDP this year, or roughly $900 billion.
"As long as we have a trade deficit, foreigners are going to be buying our assets," says Swagel, who doesn't see a big risk here. In the past, he says, they mostly bought Treasury bonds. Now they're increasingly snapping up assets like companies and real-estate.
"We have strong growth and foreigners want to invest." Saving more here and borrowing less would be one way to reduce the trade deficit and reduce our reliance on foreign capital. Otherwise, he says, "we better get used to it."