Jared Kushner and U.S. officials visited a major American air base in the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday, speaking to Emirati pilots on the tarmac, near the advanced F-35 fighter jets that the UAE hopes to buy as it normalizes relations with Israel.
The visit to Al-Dhafra Air Base by President Donald Trump's senior advisor and son-in-law came just before the El Al flight that had brought the U.S.-Israeli delegation to Abu Dhabi was set to depart.
The U.S. delegation arrived in the UAE on an El Al plane on Monday in the first-ever direct commercial passenger flight between the two countries. The flight followed an agreement brokered by the Trump administration last month that saw the two countries establish diplomatic relations.
While at the base near Abu Dhabi, Kushner and U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien met Emirati Major General Falah al-Qahtani, a top defense official.
Qahtani emphasized the "common interests" of the United States and UAE, as well as the participation by Emirati forces in "major coalition international operations" including those to counter the Islamic State in Syria and Afghanistan.
O'Brien told journalists that “The reputation of the Emirati armed forces has gone worldwide.” He added, “It is one of the most-capable forces in the world and we are proud to partner with you and serve side by side with you.”
O'Brien added that the U.S. expected a “significant security aspect” in the Israel-UAE normalization, without elaborating. Journalists also toured a joint command center run by both the United States and the UAE at the site.
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Kusher, not wearing a facemask amid the coronavirus pandemic, shook hands with the U.S. and Emirati pilots gathered for the event. He also left a written message at the base.
“May the relationship with America continue to grow and together, through strength, will benefit as we bring more peace and prosperity to the Middle East and beyond!” he wrote.
The journalists' visit to Al-Dhafra shows the change in the relationship between the Emirates and the U.S., which established defense deals with the UAE, a federation of seven sheikhdoms on the Arabian Peninsula, amid the 1991 Gulf War. Emirati special forces deployed to Afghanistan after the 2001 American-led invasion that followed the September 11 attacks.
But the U.S. military for years only vaguely referred to Al-Dhafra as a base in “southwest Asia.” In recent years, the UAE has been far more willing to acknowledge the U.S. presence here and elsewhere in a country that hosts some 5,000 American troops. Dubai's Jebel Ali port also is the U.S. Navy's busiest port of call outside of America.
Al-Dhafra has hosted the F-35 for years, as well as surveillance aircraft, armed drones and refueling planes. The American delegation's visit to the base during the this tour suggests the F-35 sale remains a key part of the deal.
The UAE has touted the normalization deal as a tool to force Israel into halting its contentious plan to annex parts of the West Bank sought by the Palestinians for their future state. It also may help the Emiratis acquire advanced U.S. weapons systems that have been previously unattainable, such as the F-35 fighter jet. Currently, Israel is the only country in the region with the stealth warplanes.
The Palestinians, however, have fiercely opposed the normalization as peeling away one of their few advantages in moribund peace talks with Israel. Palestinians have held public protests and burned the UAE flag in anger.