US approves $23bn advanced arms sale to UAE: Pompeo

The arms sale, which includes F-35s, flows from the UAE’s agreement to normalise relations with Israel.

Israeli Air Force F-35 flies during an aerial demonstration in 2019 [File: Amir Cohen/Reuters]

The Trump administration notified Congress it has approved the sale of more than $23bn in advanced weapons systems, including F-35 fighter jets and armed drones, to the United Arab Emirates, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said.

The formal notification to legislators follows a US-brokered agreement in September in which the UAE agreed to normalise relations with Israel, becoming the first of three Arab states to make such a move in recent months.

“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 $23.37bn package includes up to 50 F-35 Lightning II aircraft, up to 18 MQ-9B Unmanned Aerial Systems and a package of air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions, the State Department said.

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

Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat, criticised the arms sale to the UAE, saying it would constrain the options of President-elect Joe Biden who has signalled he will return the US to the Iran nuclear agreement.

Any deal the United States makes to sell weapons in the Middle East must satisfy decades of agreement with Israel that the US-made equipment must not impair Israel’s “qualitative military edge”, guaranteeing US weapons furnished to Israel are “superior in capability” to those sold to its neighbours.

The announcement came just days after Biden won enough states needed to take the presidency from Trump, who made pro-Israel policies part of his re-election campaign.

Israel initially baulked at the prospective sale of F-35 warplanes, valued at $10.4bn, but dropped its opposition after what it described as US guarantees that Israel’s regional military superiority would be preserved.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed signed agreements normalizing relations with Israel and on September 15, 2020 [File: Tom Brenner/Reuters]

The UAE, one of Washington’s closest Middle East allies, has long wanted the stealthy jets and was promised a chance to buy them in a side deal when it agreed to normalise relations with Israel, part of a strategic regional realignment against Iran.

In the past, the F-35 has been denied to Arab states while Israel has about 24 of the jets. Israel is currently slated to buy 50 of the fighters.

“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,” Pompeo said.

The $2.97bn 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 US defence contractors to sell more drones to allies.

Source: Reuters