Photo: CENTOM

US Senate to vote on UAE arms deal

The United States Senate is expected to soon vote on a resolution that would block the Trump administration’s $23.37 billion weapons sale to the United Arab Emirates.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo informed Congress on 10 November that the White House had approved the sale to the UAE of products from General Atomics, Lockheed Martin Corp. and Raytheon Technologies Corp. The deal consists of up to 50 F-35 Lighting II aircraft, the world’s most advanced fighter jet; a package of air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions including over 14,000 bombs and munitions; and as many as 18 MQ-9B Unmanned Aerial System in what is the second-largest sale of U.S. drones to a single country.

As U.S. law requires congressional review of major arms deals, resolutions to block them must garner two-thirds majorities in both the Republican-led Senate and Democratic-led House of Representatives in order to overcome President Donald Trump’s veto. Past measures to block Trump’s weapons’ sales have passed the House and Senate – but failed to get enough Republican support to override the Republican president’s vetoes.

The formal notification followed a U.S.-brokered 15 September agreement for the UAE to normalize relations with Israel, becoming the first of three Arab states to make such a move in recent months. The UAE, which is one of Washington’s closest Middle East allies after Israel, was given the opportunity to buy the long-coveted stealthy jets in a side deal of the Abraham Accords, as part of a strategic regional realignment against Iran.

“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 in a statement. “The proposed sale will make the UAE even more capable and interoperable with U.S. partners in a manner fully consistent with America’s longstanding commitment to ensuring Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge (QME),” he added.

The announcement came just days after Democratic challenger Joe Biden won enough states needed to take the presidency from Trump, a Republican who made pro-Israel policies part of his re-election campaign. The sale of armed drones would mark the first such export since the Trump administration reinterpreted a Cold War-era arms agreement between 34 nations to allow American defense contractors to sell more of the unmanned aerial vehicles to their allies.

After initially balking at the prospective F-35 sale to the Abu Dhabi, Jerusalem accepted the deal after receiving Washington’s guarantee to uphold the decades-old agreement to ensure preservation of Israel’s regional military superiority.

Israel has about 24 and is currently slated to purchase 50 of the fighter aircraft, which had been denied to Arab states in the past.

Critics of the deal claim the Trump administration failing to provide sufficient information as it rushed the sale as part of the Israel-UAE peace deal, including effects on the balance of power in the Middle East and safeguards to ensure the weapons not end up in the wrong hands.

The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations and House of Representatives Foreign Affairs committees – whose members have criticized UAE’s role in civilian deaths in Yemen’s civil war – always review major weapons sales before the State Department sends its formal notification to the legislative branch.

The top Democrat on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), Senator Bob Menendez, was joined by fellow Democrat Chris Murphy and Republican Rand Paul in announcing on 18 November that they would introduce measures seeking to halt the deal.

Following a briefing to the SFRC on 30 November by Trump administration officials, Sen. Murphy wrote on Twitter: “Just a mind blowing number of unsettled issues and questions the Administration couldn’t answer. Hard to overstate the danger of rushing this.”

Sen. Menendez said he hoped more Republicans would support the resolution, which would require extensive support from members of Trump’s party – who rarely break from the president.

The U.S. Senate’s Republican leader urged lawmakers to vote against the resolutions.

“It’s a little baffling to suggest that, now of all times, a protest gesture with no chance of obtaining a veto-proof majority is a valuable use of the Senate’s time. But above and beyond that, the strategic realities dictate that Congress should not stand in the way of this sale,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said as he opened the Senate yesterday.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio, a foreign relations panel member and acting Intelligence Committee chairman, said he had not yet decided whether he would support the resolutions. Like other legislators, he said he was left with unanswered questions after Trump administration briefings on the sale.

Rubio said one of his concerns was how the sale to the UAE would affect Israel, and another involved a matter he could not discuss publicly.

Meanwhile, 29 arms control and human rights organizations sent a letter opposing the sale to the State Department, and are calling on the U.S. Congress to block the deal. Signatories include human rights organizations from the region, including the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies and Mwatana for Human Rights.

“The hope is to stop these sales altogether,” said Seth Binder, advocacy officer at the Project on Middle East Democracy, who spearheaded the effort. “But if that is not possible in the short term, this sends an important signal to the incoming Biden administration that there is a diverse group of organizations that oppose delivery of these weapons.”

The groups expressed concern the planned arms sale would fuel continued harm to civilians and exacerbate humanitarian crises due to conflicts in Yemen and Libya.

The UAE embassy said in a statement, “Aligned closely with US interests and values, the UAE’s highly capable military is a forceful deterrent to aggression and an effective response to violent extremism.”