Giving the UAE F-35 fighter jets could render all the research and effort behind the next-generation stealth aircraft useless.
A month ago, the United Arab Emirates normalised ties with Israel. The deal signing was received with much acclaim by the United States as its key broker, kicking off talks of the sale of American F-35 stealth fighters to the UAE.
The next-generation fighter's makers have previously boasted that the F-35's revolutionary technology ensures a radar signature the size of a golf ball, ensuring stealth on critical missions, years ahead of other stealth fighters used worldwide.
But concerns have been raised that selling the F-35 to countries in cooperation with Russia or other unallied states could provide opponents with crucial data to improve detection and targeting of F-35.
Israel publicly opposed the sale, stating that it would undermine its security standing in the region. Maintaining Israel’s military edge has been a cornerstone of US foreign policy since the 1960s, and enshrined in its law since 2008.
As a reward for the UAE’s compliance however, the Trump administration is endeavouring to find a way to sell the F-35 fighter jets. At a hefty $100 million per plane, a possible deal represents a significant windfall to the United States defence industry amid a flagging economy and ahead of US presidential elections.
But little attention has been given to the immediate impact and risks of selling advanced fighter jets to the UAE, given its dismal human rights record, and countless alleged war crimes to its name.
For starters, the UAE worked actively with Erik Prince, infamous founder of the Blackwater mercenary outfit accused of several human rights violations and war crimes.
After rebranding his company as the Frontier Services Group with a Chinese majority stake, Prince helped the United Arab Emirates train a South American mercenary army to fight for the Saudi-UAE coalition war in Yemen for $529 million.
In 2013, Prince sold a majority share of FSG to the Chinese. His new overseer, billionaire Chang Xhenming, is particularly close to Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Over the past six years, tens of thousands of people – mostly civilians – have been killed in the Yemen conflict, according to aid organisations.
From the US to the UAE, only to end up in China
DarkMatter, a UAE surveillance and intelligence group employing former US intelligence operatives to conduct illegal surveillance on world leaders and crack down on dissidents, is one such case. Dark Matter was also hired by the Saudi Royal family to spy on murdered Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, and played a key role in building the Kingdom’s intelligence and espionage capabilities.
The secretive company has also brought the UAE into good standing with other nations with no regard for human rights. The suspect business took part in the Arab Future Cities Conference in November 2015, where it presented a vision of smarter, tech-driven cities. This caught the eye of Chinese officials. More intelligent cities meant Big Brother-esque widespread surveillance was installed throughout the UAE.
In suspect timing, the Memorandum of Understanding also took place right before China scaled up its total surveillance and crackdown on Uighurs in Xinjiang, China.
Only two years later on April 25 2017, DarkMatter signed a Global Strategic Memorandum of Understanding with Huawei, a leading Chinese company, for the same ‘Big Data’ systems and ‘Smart City’ solutions.
Carbyne, another espionage and surveillance company co-owned by the late alleged paedophile billionaire, Jeffery Epstein alongside members of the Israeli political and intelligence establishment, benefited immensely from Erik Prince’s involvement with the UAE’s DarkMatter.
Human Rights Watch revealed that Chinese authorities began to use an application much like Carbyne to surveil Uyghurs. Carbyne’s first surveillance program was installed in the US in 2018 at the same time, China’s nearly identical mass surveillance app was launched.
Unlike the limited use Carbyne’s 911 program saw in the US, China’s ‘Integrated Joint Operations Platform’ was a highly similar app for mass surveillance with no legal restrictions.
The Chinese surveillance app monitors every aspect of a user’s life, including personal conversations, power usage, activation of the camera and microphone, and even tracking a user’s movement.
Carbyne’s technology is speculated to have been transferred to China through co-founder Lital Leshem, one of its shareholders who also worked with Erik Prince during his time in the UAE.
With similar technology being used, and mercenary middle-man Erik Prince responsible for previously bringing UAE’s DarkMatter surveillance technology to China, indications point to Erik Prince also serving as the common link between a likely transfer of surveillance technology from Epstein’s Israeli company to China.
A sign of warming ties between the UAE and China came in July 2019, when Chinese communist party leader Xi Jinping met with Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ). The meeting resulted in a pledge to boost comprehensive strategic partnerships between the two countries.
The Russian Connection
Russia is fast becoming a crucial hinge in regional arms deals as Samuel Ramani writes in Foreign Policy:
"There are also concerns about the possibility of Russia and China supplying sophisticated military technology to Iran, in order to counteract the enhancements of the UAE’s aerial capabilities resulting from F-35 transfers. While these countervailing factors are concerning enough, the UAE’s growing strategic partnership with Russia provides an equally compelling rationale for shelving F-35 sales to Abu Dhabi.
Although the UAE is often described as the most trusted U.S. counterterrorism partner in the Arab world, Abu Dhabi has worked with Russia on bolstering Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s international legitimacy and enabling Libyan National Army chieftain Khalifa Haftar’s offensive against Tripoli. This crisis-level military cooperation is intertwined with a broadly strengthening bilateral relationship. In June 2018, Russia and the UAE signed the first strategic partnership agreement between Moscow and a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) country. Russian President Vladimir Putin described Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed as an “old friend” ahead of his October 2019 visit to the UAE, which resulted in $1.3 billion in new commercial deals between the two countries."
Russia’s relationship with the UAE runs the gamut of active collaboration on weapons platforms, arms sales, and actual joint-operations, giving significant credence to the possibility that the UAE is likely to transfer sensitive proprietary F-35 technology to Russia.
This would be ruinous to allied efforts to stay ahead of the stealth fighter race.
The F-35’s production was only possible through shared funding and development by over 35 nations, including Turkey. The program is expected to cost $406.5 billion for acquisition and manufacturing, and an additional $1.1 trillion for operations and maintenance throughout its lifetime.
If the UAE acquires the F-35, there is a high likelihood that they will be deployed alongside Russian missile platforms, which require integrated networks to make full use of the F-35 capabilities. This would put Russia on the path to identifying vulnerabilities in the F-35’s systems, quickly bringing parity if not rendering its costly research and production obsolete.
But the most concrete risk comes after Rostec, Russia’s largest defence company announced in February 2017, that it would cooperate with the UAE on developing a next generation fighter jet. While the deal was put on the back-burner, Russia nonetheless tried to win over the UAE as a partner in producing its latest Su-57 jets, which seek to compete with the F-35.
Given the UAE’s desire to establish itself as the most advanced military force of its region, a secret deal leading to sensitive technology transfers from the UAE to Russia is not unlikely, and altogether possible.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article failed to attribute Samuel Ramani's article in Foreign Policy. The error has been corrected.