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Massive UAE arms deal by Trump administration vexes some US lawmakers

  • 11 Nov 2020

A $23.5 billion agreement announced by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo includes 50 F-35 jets, as well as drones and munitions.

According to reports Lockheed Martin Corp. has a deal worth more than $37 billion to sell a record 440 F-35 fighter jets to a group of 11 nations, including the United States. ( Reuters )

The outgoing Trump administration has notified Congress of its intention to transfer tens of billions of dollars in arms to the UAE prompting anger among Democrats.

Incumbent President Donald Trump lost the November 3rd presidential election to Democratic candidate Joe Biden but continues to dispute the result despite no evidence of ballot fraud.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo cited the threat faced by Gulf countries from Iran in his announcement of the sale, which followed Abu Dhabi’s normalisation agreement with Israel.

“This is in recognition of our deepening relationship and the UAE’s need for advanced defense capabilities to deter and defend itself against heightened threats from Iran,” Pompeo said.

News of the deal follows an Axios report, which said that the Trump administration in coordination with Israel wants to rush through weekly sanctions against Iran. Such a move would make it difficult for Biden to ease measures and make them in line with US requirements under the Iran nuclear deal. Holly Dagres, writing for the Atlantic Council, described the measures as  “scorched Earth tactics”.

Democrats also fear that the arms deal with the UAE and the looming measures against Iran are being rushed through as part of a series of measures designed to restrict the president elect’s foreign policy options.

Responding to Pompeo’s announcement on Twitter, Democratic Senator Chris Murphy said: 

“This is a massive arms deal that is completely inappropriate for a lame duck Administration.

“It's a transparent attempt to narrow options in the Middle East for President-elect Biden when he takes office.”

In October, Democrats introduced the “Secure F-35 Exports Act of 2020”, which would block the sale of F-35 aircraft to Middle Eastern states on the condition that they do not give any other country a military advantage over Israel, and that they are not used to commit human rights violations.

The Biden approach

For the last four years, the UAE has developed strong ties with the Trump administration, creating direct channels with the president and his son-in-law Jared Kushner instead of primarily relying on the State Department. 

During the course of Trump’s tenure in the White House, the UAE has embarked on an ambitious and devastating foreign policy across the region, which the US president has largely turned a blind eye towards.

Trump was, for example, quick to endorse the joint UAE-Saudi-Bahraini-Egyptian blockade of Qatar. The Republican leader initially repeated claims by Arab autocrats that Qatar was backing terrorists but soon changed tack. The blockade against Doha continues regardless.

The US also continues to support Gulf states, such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia, in the war in Yemen, which has killed more than 100,000 civilians, and caused mass starvation and disease outbreak.

While the US under Trump has not actively taken a side in the Libyan conflict, it has adopted a hands-off in that country, which has allowed the UAE and its allies to support warlords, such as Khalifa Haftar, who is accused of committing a number of atrocities.

How Biden will approach the UAE is still somewhat of an unknown quantity. The two states remain close allies irrespective of Trump’s presidency but unlike Saudi Arabia, which Biden has forcefully condemned, there is no indication that his administration will be in any way punitive.

The worst the UAE can expect is getting ‘less of what it wants’, as Biden has stated his desire to reassert the American presence in the international order. That likely means less tolerance for countries that ignore US interests in the region.

Biden has also made no secret of his desire to return to the pre-2016 status-quo in the region with regard to Iran, and may well seek to undo Trump administration attempts to tilt the power balance in favour of Arab Gulf countries by limiting marquee arms deals.

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