F-35, Reaper Sale To UAE Draws Fire In Senate, Fuels Concern Over Libya

RIAD KAHWAJI

The Trump administration appears committed to reinforcing allies in the Middle East all the way to Jan. 20, when Joe Biden will be sworn in as president. This week’s notification of Congress of a pending $23.4 billion deal with the United Arab Emirates for 50 F-35 warplanes, 18 MQ-9B Reapers, and billions worth of air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions is the latest in a series of sales to partners in the region meant to deter and contain Iran. 

The deal has raised concerns in Congress, finding members concerned that such a massive sale of high-tech weaponry might dilute Israel’s military edge in the region, regardless of the fact that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu approved the F-35 sale as part of the normalization deal with UAE.

In exchange for the nod of approval, the US will likely sell more F-35s to Israel, grant access to highly classified systems on the F-35 that Israel can’t currently import, and potentially grant Israel access to highly classified SBIRS satellites. 

The Senate Appropriations Committee included a requirement that the State Department certify that the F-35 sale “does not diminish Israel’s qualitative military edge; and poses no vulnerabilities to U.S. military systems and technology vis-a-vis the Russian Federation and [China],” in it’s version of the 2021 Pentagon spending bill released Tuesday,

“The UAE has proven to be a reliable partner to the United States on many occasions,” said retired UAE Air Force Maj. Gen. Abdullah Sayed Al Hashemi. “The UAE acquiring the F-35 will be a gain for the US because it will have a better-equipped and a more capable ally to help in protecting joint interests in the Middle East region.”

Al Hashemi pointed out that when the US needed partners in its coalition in Afghanistan, the UAE sent troops, and when Washington needed air assets to help battle the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, the UAE Air Force contributed to daily operations there. “In joint operations, the US will certainly find a more capable partner in the UAE with the F-35s,” he said.

“The package has its own built-in lobby through the companies that would likely push it through possible hurdles at the Congress,” said one UAE analyst who asked to speak anonymously. “It has been a tough year on the economy; Congress members will see how many jobs the deal will create.”

The UAE has been trying for years to procure the Reaper, but previous American administrations refused entreaties from its partners in the region. In response, the UAE bought Chinese-built Wing Loong I/II drones, a move which worried officials in Washington wary of China’s persistent push into the region.

The sale has critics outside of the Senate, as well. Human rights groups have long pointed out that the UAE and Saudi Arabia have used American weaponry to conduct their bombing campaign in Yemen, which has killed thousands of civilians and worsened the humanitarian disaster which continues to unfold in the impoverished nation. 

“The startling fact that the United States government continues its unflinching support of providing weapons that risk adding to the devastating toll of Yemeni civilians unlawfully killed and injured by US-made weapons should shake to the core every person living in this country,” Philippe Nassif, advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International USA said in a statement this week.

The UAE pulled out of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen in December 2019.      

Members of Congress have also called attention to the UAE’s involvement in the civil war raging in Libya. 

In a Nov. 10 letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Democratic Sens. Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders, and Jeanne Shaheen said the Trump administration had failed to enforce a ban on providing weapons to Libya’s warring parties, and, said that words “have not been followed by actions, and foreign actors — including Russia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) — continue to flagrantly violate the arms embargo with impunity.” 

The lawmakers were also concerned by a January airstrike in Tripoli that killed 26 military recruits which was tied to a UAE-operated Chinese drone.The letter was first obtained by The Washington Post. 

Shaheen and Booker are members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee which oversees foreign arms sales, but the Democrats remain in the minority in the chamber so far, and they are likely unable to rally enough Republican votes to block the sale.

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