UAE F-35 deal on life support after Emiratis cancel acceptance of weapons package

By VALERIE INSINNA & RIAD KAHWAJI

WASHINGTON and DUBAI: The United Arab Emirates has put a halt to a $23.3 billion deal with the US for F-35 stealth fighters, MQ-9 Reaper drones and a package of weapons, with a UAE source telling Breaking Defense the discussions have been “suspended” indefinitely for a “full reassessment” of the arms agreement.

On Monday, a UAE air force official sent a letter to the Pentagon withdrawing its letters of offer and acceptance for 50 Lockheed Martin F-35A fighters, 18 General Atomics MQ-9Bs, and $10 billion worth of air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions made largely by Raytheon.

The Wall Street Journal first reported on the letter, which was independently confirmed by multiple sources who spoke with Breaking Defense.

The reasoning for abandoning the deal, according to one source familiar with discussions, is to preserve Abu Dhabi’s sovereignty, which UAE officials believe would be impeded by the conditions the US is attempting to impose to safeguard the equipment — especially the stealthy, fifth generation F-35.

Specifically, the US opposes the UAE’s contract with Chinese 5G provider Huawei, fearing that the Chinese network could technologically compromise the F-35. It also has concerns about what it believes may be a Chinese military facility built at a UAE port, and questions whether Abu Dhabi could protect US military technologies while working so closely with China.

The UAE’s withdrawal from the agreement comes a day after Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met with UAE Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed on Monday, and mere weeks after the country inked a $19 billion deal with France for 80 Dassault Rafale fighters.

“I suspect they took advantage of the timing,” said one source.

After a year in which UAE officials insisted they would not give up on Huawei — seen by Emirati leadership as a strategic relationship with China — the withdrawal of the LOA seems to serve as a message to Washington to either stick to the original F-35 offer, created under the Trump administration and without the Huawei requirements, or they will look elsewhere.

Now US officials are scrambling to understand whether the UAE is serious about killing the deal, or if this is just a bargaining ploy aimed at getting the US to come to the table with more lenient conditions. Notably, a delegation of high ranking UAE officials is set to visit the Pentagon on Wednesday and Thursday for discussions, including a joint military dialogue where the issue of the sale will likely be raised.

Mohammed Bahroon, director general of the Dubau-based B’huth Center for Public Policy, called the UAE’s move a clear reaction to the American demands with Huawei.

Those demands “have been used to warrant revisions of previous revisions of the deal, and imposing new controls on safeguarding technology as well as demands of revisiting standard end user agreements, possibly made the deal far less feasible than it was originally,” he said. However, “I am sure it can be resumed if circumstances change.”

What those circumstances may be — the US dropping its opposition to Huawei, a misstep by China that causes relations to break down, or even the results of the 2024 American election which could herald in a new US administration that is friendlier to the UAE — remains to be seen.

“The Biden-Harris Administration remains committed to the proposed sales of F-35 aircraft, the MQ-9B, and munitions even as we continue consultations to ensure that we have a clear, mutual understanding of Emirati obligations and actions before, during, and after delivery,” a State Department spokesperson said. “We are hopeful that we can work through any outstanding issues, and we look forward to the U.S.-UAE Joint Military Dialogue later this week.”

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