Concerns over increasingly close ties between Abu Dhabi and Beijing could hinder the sale of advanced stealth fighter aircraft to the United Arab Emirates, the Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday, citing unnamed U.S. officials familiar with the matter.
According to the Journal, the U.S. has grown concerned over “signs of nascent security cooperation” between the two countries, describing recent landings of Chinese military planes bearing unknown cargoes and citing a 2020 Pentagon report stating that China was likely to try to establish an overseas logistics base in the Emirates.
It reported that President Joe Biden’s administration is currently attempting to renegotiate an agreement signed at the end of Donald Trump’s presidency for the sale of the UAE 50 F-35s and 18 Reaper drones.
Washington is currently demanding that the Emirates provide assurances that Israel’s qualitative military edge will not be eroded, that it does not transfer the new U.S. technologies under discussion to China or other third parties and that the new weapons platforms’ use be limited in the ongoing conflicts in Libya and Yemen.
Human rights groups and U.S. politicians have criticized the UAE's role in civilian deaths in Yemen.
Moreover, allowing China any basing rights in the UAE would also scuttle the deal, one U.S. official who spoke with the Journal said.
Following the announcement of the Abraham Accords last August, Yedioth Ahronoth reported that the pending deal, which was signed in Washington in September, contained a secret clause linking normalization between Israel and the UAE to the U.S. sale of advanced aircraft. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denied the report, stating that “Israel did not change its consistent positions against the sale to any country in the Middle East of weapons and defense technologies that could tip the (military) balance.”
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The sale of the jet had been controversial in Israel, which originally had exclusive use of the F-35 in the Middle East and Jerusalem had initially balked at any other Middle East powers obtaining the plane, citing U.S. laws that it should maintain a military advantage in the region.
Under a principle of preserving Israel’s “qualitative military edge”, the United States consults with Jerusalem on proposed sales of advanced arms to other countries in the region.
Netanyahu issued a repeated denial in September after the New York Times reported that he chose not to try to block a weapons deal while trying to establish diplomatic ties with the UAE.
However, by October 2020, Netanyahu had reversed himself, issuing a joint statement with Defense Minister Benny Gantz saying that they had both agreed “that since the U.S. is upgrading Israel’s military capability and is maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge, Israel will not oppose the sale of these systems to the UAE.”
Shortly thereafter, however, Gantz issued a statement claiming that negotiations on the sale of arms were known to some Israeli officials, but were kept hidden from him and Israel's security establishment.
Netanyahu’s turnaround on the jets led to a change of tone from Israeli officials, with Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer saying in December that Israel was “very comfortable” with the sale, which the government believed “would not violate the U.S. commitment to maintain Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge.”
On January 20, Trump’s last day in office, the U.S. and UAE signed a deal for 50 F-35 jets and up to 18 armed drones, a major component of a $23 billion sale of high-tech armaments from General Atomics, Lockheed Martin Corp and Raytheon Technologies Corp to the UAE announced this fall.
According to the deal, the jets are set to be delivered by 2027.
Following his inauguration, however, President Biden put the deal under review, only announcing that he would advance the sale in mid-April. However, recent concerns over growing Chinese influence in the UAE may again put the deal at risk.
The UAE has denied that transferring such sensitive technology created a proliferation risk, however, the UAE Ambassador to Washington Yousef Otaiba told the Journal that his country had “a long and consistent track record of protecting U.S. military technology, both in coalitions where we’ve served alongside the U.S. military and inside the UAE where a broad range of sensitive U.S. military assets have been deployed for many years.”
Reuters contributed to this report.