UAE backs out of F35 program
The United Arab Emirates on Tuesday suspended talks on a $23 billion deal to purchase American-made F-35 jets, armed drones and other equipment, in a rare dispute between Washington and a key U.S. ally in the Persian Gulf.
The Emirati embassy in Washington said it would “suspend discussions” with the U.S., though meetings at the Pentagon this week between the two sides on other matters will move forward as planned.
“The U.S. remains the UAE’s preferred provider for advanced defense requirements and discussions for the F-35 may be re-opened in the future,” the embassy said in a statement.
The proposed sale of 50 F-35s to the UAE came at the end of former President Donald Trump’s administration, emerging from a deal that saw the Emiratis formally recognize Israel. President Joe Biden’s administration put the deal on hold after he took office, in part due to criticism of the UAE and Saudi Arabia over their yearslong war in Yemen, which has sparked one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises and continues today.
Also included in the deal are 18 advanced drone systems and a package of air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions.
Emirati officials blame an American insistence on restrictions on how and where the F-35s could be used and say they are a violation of the UAE’s sovereignty.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. is prepared to move forward with the sales if the Emiratis decide to do so.
“We’ve wanted to make sure, for example, that our commitment to Israel’s qualitative military edge is ensured, so we wanted to make sure that we could do a thorough review of any technologies that are sold or transferred to other partners in the region, including the UAE,” he told reporters at a news conference in Kuala Lumpur with Malaysia’s foreign minister on Wednesday.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters that U.S. requirements on the use of American-made military equipment “are universal, non-negotiable, and not specific to the UAE.”
The UAE has long worked with the U.S. on counterterrorism and allowed the entry of people fleeing Afghanistan during the chaotic U.S. withdrawal earlier this year. But tensions between Washington and Abu Dhabi have risen over the UAE’s growing cooperation with China.
Israel playing on two fronts
Israel appears to be attempting to continue deepening ties with the UAE on the one hand, but still sees the UAE as a geopolitical threat on the other, and is attempting to curb its influence in various areas.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett touched down in the United Arab Emirates Monday in a historic visit, marking the first time an Israeli leader has publicly met the UAE’s de-facto ruler, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
Bennett took the opportunity to emphasize what he saw and, indeed, what regional analysts describe as a new reality for the Middle East: “In my opinion, this is what the peace and the new reality this region is witnessing, and we are working together to ensure a better future for our children,” he told UAE state news agency WAM.
Later on Monday, Bennett’s office announced that Mohammed bin Zayed accepted the Israeli leader’s invitation to visit Israel. The date of that visit has not yet been established.
The UAE and Israel signed the historic Abraham Accords in August of 2020, brokered by the Trump administration and marking the first-ever normalization of ties between Israel and an Arab Gulf country. Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco later followed with their own normalization agreements with Israel.
Despite some criticism from other parts of the Arab world, Israel and the UAE have forged ahead with billions of dollars worth of trade, tourism, technology and transport partnerships. Within months of the accords’ signing, Israeli tourists were pouring into the UAE’s restaurants, beaches and malls. December saw open-air Hannukah ceremonies held in Dubai, something that would have been unimaginable just two years before.
Discussions between Bennett and the UAE leader are likely to focus on mutual areas of cooperation including energy, trade and defense. The UAE last March announced a massive $10 billion fund dedicated to investing in what it deems to be strategic sectors in Israel. The sectors include health care, energy, water, manufacturing, agricultural technology and space. In November, Israel, the UAE and Jordan signed an important energy-for-water deal. And in October, Abu Dhabi’s massive sovereign wealth fund Mubadala bought a 22% stake in Israel’s Tamar offshore gas field.
However, although the Israel is happy to increase economic cooperation, it is still geopolitically wary of the UAE.
Israel has backed out of a deal with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to build an oil link through Eilat, in a move that Israeli Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg said in a statement is a “huge and dramatic environmental achievement.”
Zandberg added that the nation will not become “a bridge to polluting oil in an era of climate crisis”. However, many believe that Israel blocked the project as it would give the UAE too much influence in Europe, making it a primary energy source possibly at the cost of Israel.
Does mistrust remain?
As long as the UAE continues its path of geopolitical diversification and independence, building relations with countries like Russia and China, and sometimes itself contradicting US geopolitical aims, the US and Israel will not place full trust in it. This is quite clear in the US’s case, while Israel is still trying to develop ties while maintaining caution.
The UAE last month ordered to stop work on a Chinese facility in the country after American officials stated that Beijing intended to use the site for military purposes, according to a top UAE official.Last month, reports had emerged that the Biden administration managed to halt the construction of a secret development inside of a Chinese shipping port in the UAE, one of the US’s closest Mideast allies, after intense pressure from the US.
Emirates ordered work stopped at the site at Washington’s behest, said Anwar Gargash, a diplomatic adviser to the UAE’s leadership. The UAE, he said, didn’t believe the facility was intended for military or security uses, The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported.
This project, near Abu Dhabi, was halted after several rounds of meetings and visits by US officials, WSJ had reported citing people familiar with the matter.
After the intelligence agencies in Washington learned that Beijing was secretly building what they suspected was a military facility at a port, the Biden administration warned the Emirati government that a Chinese military presence in its country could threaten ties between the two countries.
Indeed, this presence, is a major reason why the US conditions to sell the F35s and drones included clauses that would prevent them being used by or in contact with Chinese forces.
It remains to be seen whether a deeper rift in ties will appear between the UAE and the US as well as Israel.