On Monday night, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee met at a briefing with Trump administration officials to hear about a $ 23 billion arms sale planned for the UAE. Just as it was over, one of the participants blew up what was happening behind closed doors.
“Only one mind is blowing a number of unresolved questions and questions that the administration has been unable to answer,” Democrat Sen tweeted. Chris Murphy. “But it’s hard to overestimate the danger of this being rushed.”
This remark underscored the growing political struggle over the arms trade announced in early November, a stalemate that could severely affect America’s relations with its authoritarian ally and the military balance in the Middle East.
President Donald Trump wants to sell up to 50 F-35 fighters, nearly 20 Reaper drones, and about 14,000 bombs and ammunition to the UAE – and wants to do so before President-elect Joe Biden enters the Oval Office and potentially liquidates the sale.
The administration has explicitly linked the huge arms package to Trump’s broader efforts against Iran and the normalization of the UAE’s relations with Israel in August.
“This recognizes our deepening relationship and the need for the United Arab Emirates to have advanced defense capabilities to deter and defend themselves against increased threats from Iran,” Foreign Minister Mike Pompeo said in a statement announcing the sale approval. “The historic agreement of the United Arab Emirates on the normalization of relations with Israel under the Abraham Agreement offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity for a positive transformation of the region’s strategic position.”
But some Republicans and Democrats in Congress, along with certain activist groups, oppose the proposed arms transfer, saying a country responsible for killing civilians in Yemen and funding Russian Libyan mercenaries does not deserve to be rewarded with even better American-made weapons.
“Selling such advanced military equipment to the UAE would mean supporting these policies and jeopardizing U.S. interests and regional stability,” said Seth Binder, an advocacy officer for the Middle East Democracy Project who is in charge of arms control. organizations. human rights groups to stop selling.
Which means in the next 50 days before Biden takes his hand, there will be a nasty clash over one of Trump’s most recent major foreign policy initiatives, which he tries to trick before the hour runs out.
“It’s happening too fast,” said Michael Hanna, a Middle East security expert at the Century Foundation in New York. “The process is important, the material is important, and it’s not good here either.”
Why do the UAE want US-made weapons?
The UAE has long longed for advanced fighter jets and high-tech drones that would make the region a bigger and more powerful player – not only militarily, but politically as well.
“We’re not talking about going to war here.” We’re talking about influencing change in the Middle East, ”said Dalia Fahmy, a UAE foreign policy expert at Long Island University. “The UAE is re-emerging in the region. It’s all about being able to harness that supposed power. “
In other words, the UAE wants the world’s most advanced fighter jet, the F-35, as well as surveillance and attack aircraft, because then it can throw its weight in the Middle East. That sounds good in principle – after all, most nations try to increase their power and influence whenever they can. But the big question is how – and where – the UAE can try to do that.
The sale is “not useful [for the US] if there is more adventurism in Libya or the Horn of Africa. , Said a Foreign Ministry official who, like others, spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to press. “Perhaps useful in a theoretical multilateral framework” against Iran.
In any case, Trump and Biden prefer the country to use weapons against Iran in the event of war, rather than bombing innocent men, women and children in Yemen, where the UAE is at war with a Saudi-led coalition.
Finding out what assurances the U.S. had received from the UAE before the sale, according to two Senate sources familiar with the dispute, conducted much of the Senate’s qualified hearing on Monday.
Murphy’s tweet made it clear that the responses the senators had received were unsatisfactory – and now he and others are trying to prevent the transfer.
The United Arab Emirates arms trade case is in five parts
On November 18, three senators – alongside Murphy Democrats and Senate Foreign Relations Rankings Robert Menendez and Republican Rand Paul – passed four joint resolutions to stop the UAE arms trade.
“Congress is once again taking a controlling role to avoid gaining national security gains for the U.S. and our allies and hopefully prevent new arms competition in the Middle East,” Menendez said in a statement at the time.
These resolutions must be voted on and passed by December 11, otherwise they expire, clearing Trump’s path to the sale. But whether the blocking effort works or not, the resolutions help clarify the five main arguments against the deal.
The first, as mentioned above, is that the UAE can use weapons indiscriminately, killing civilians in Yemen or elsewhere. Without clear guarantees that this will not happen, senators and activists do not want the measure to move forward.
The second concern is that Israel could lose its “qualitative military edge” (QME) in the Middle East. Simply put, U.S. policy since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war has been for Israel to have stronger forces than its Arab neighbors. Israel and others fear they could give up UAE F-35 aircraft and drones.
However, this issue has recently “receded in its significance,” said Barbara Leaf, U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates between 2014 and 2018. The main reason for this is that in October, the Israeli government rejected F-35 transfers in particular, shortly after the Pentagon promised Jerusalem that its edge would remain intact.
“It’s more about the foreign policy dimensions of the proposed sale now,” Leaf told me.
Which brings us to the third objection: that the United Arab Emirates, which has advanced weapons, could change the balance of power in the Middle East, making the Gulf country an even stronger, more influential regional player. If that were the case, the experts told me that the UAE could use its newfound power to attack its enemies, namely Iran, and support other agents in the area.
But some are not so worried about this possibility. “This is not going to change the military balance in the Middle East,” Leaf said, currently at the Washington Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington. “Iran’s missile and unconventional arsenal is formidable and could cause enormous damage, even if the UAE acquires the F-35.”
The fourth concern is the possibility of an arms race. Basically, if the UAE gets a lot of advanced weapons, others, such as Qatar and Iran, opponents of the UAE, may need them. At this point, all countries can continue to buy more and more weapons until the region becomes increasingly militarized and more dangerous. Many experts hope to avoid this result, although this possibility is still far away.
The fifth concern is that the Trump administration will decide in months an agreement that usually lasts for years. “It simply came to our notice then. This is an abnormal and bad practice, ”said Century Foundation Hanna.
What usually happens is that an agreement is carefully worked out between the two parties, which is then thoroughly reviewed by the State Department and the Pentagon, and then long-term consultations begin with Congress. The issue of Israel, for example, which could take years, would be the subject of debate.
In this case, the Trump administration wants to go from the November announcement to the sale before January 20, the day Biden takes the presidential oath. This is just unheard of, especially for a weapon pack of this size.
That’s why one of the Senate assistants told me they didn’t want to see the deal happen before they “glued the i’s and crossed the t’s”.
Until then, the backlash against the deal is likely to persist.