The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has suspended talks with the US regarding a $23 billion deal that involves the purchase of 50 F-35 fighter jets, 18 armed drones and missiles.
The suspension was first reported by the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, in a report that said that the decision would be a “significant shake-up” between the two countries that are increasingly at odds about China’s role in the Gulf (the Gulf is made of seven countries: Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates).
The UAE has been a key ally for the US in the Middle East and they established formal diplomatic relations in 1972 after UAE’s formation and independence from the UK.
Following UAE’s decision, the US said that it was ready to move forward with the sale of the jets. Reuters reported that one of the sticking points for the UAE is the US restricting the way F-35s can be used. Significantly, Israel, which only recently normalised relations with the UAE was the first country to buy the F-35s. It received its first F-35 in June 2016 and made its combat debut in 2018, when it carried out strikes in the Middle East.
The F-35 is a single-seat aircraft, which has the ability to go supersonic (the ability to fly faster than the speed of sound) for a short period of time and has advanced stealth characteristics. Stealthy aircrafts are designed in a way that makes it difficult for them to be detected by their enemies. Incorporating stealth characteristics involves reducing the aircraft’s radar signature by “careful shaping of the airframe”and special coatings. One F-35 jet costs approximately $80 million.
The $23 billion deal
The US and UAE signed the deal in January, right at the end of Donald Trump’s tenure and was a part of the former president’s efforts to arm strategic US allies in the middle east. The deal closely followed the “Abraham Accords”, which marked the normalisation of relations between the UAE and Israel. The Abraham Accords, which the US helped broker, were signed by the leaders of Bahrain, Israel and the UAE in September 2020.
According to an analysis by Robert Barron for the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), the accords were a part of the Trump administration’s regional security agenda, specifically, to counter Iran.
As part of this security agenda, the US prioritised improving relations between Israel and the Gulf countries, something that the latter nations have been wary of because of the Israel-Palestine conflict. As part of the Abraham Accords, Israel agreed to stop further annexation of Palestinian territory.
Significantly, Israel already uses the American made F-35 jets, which the UAE has been trying to buy from the US for a long time. A September 2020 report in The Times of Israel said that the sale of these jets between the US and UAE was held up due to the former’s commitment to protect Israel’s military edge in the region, which meant that the US would refrain from selling weapons of the same caliber to both Israel and a Gulf country without Israel’s approval.
This report also said that then prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu secretly gave a green light to the deal at the time, while criticising it in public.
On November 10, 2020, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency announced that the US State Department had made a determination approving a possible Foreign Military Sale to the UAE of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and related equipment for an estimated cost of $10.4 billion.
“This proposed sale will support the foreign policy and national security of the United States by helping to improve the security of an important regional partner. The UAE has been, and continues to be, a vital U.S. partner for political stability and economic progress in the Middle East,” the November 10 announcement said.
But recently, there are concerns over the role China is playing in the Gulf, particularly, the US is getting concerned about the relations between UAE and China. For one, UAE has partnered with the Chinese telecom giant Huawei to roll out its 5G network. Huawei has been banned by the US as it claims that the company’s ties with the Chinese government and its army (Huawei was founded by Ren Zhengfei, an engineer who served in China’s People’s Liberation Army) make it a national security risk.
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In fact, several reports from the last few months said that US president Joe Biden had been pressing the UAE to remove Huawei from its telecommunications network, casting doubt over the F-35 deal. Previously, the US had expelled Turkey from the F-35 program, which intended to buy 100 jets after a disagreement between the two over Turkey’s acquisition of a Russian air defense system.
According to a June 2021 report published by Nikkei Asia, the UAE and China have agreed on production of the Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine at a new plant being built in Abu Dhabi and the former is also using Chinese apps to administer vaccine shots.