Blinken says US still prepared to sell jet fighters to UAE

Weapons deal reached during ex-President Donald Trump’s administration includes sale of advanced F-35 aircraft to UAE.

An F-35 fighter jet arrives at the Vermont Air National Guard base in South Burlington, Vermont, on September 19, 2019 [File: Wilson Ring/AP Photo]

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States was still prepared to sell F-35 fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates.

“We remain prepared to move forward… if that is what the Emiratis are interested in doing,” he said during a visit to Malaysia on Wednesday.

Asked about the conditions the US has set, he did not give precise details, but said Washington wanted to ensure that Israel maintains its “military edge”.

“We wanted to make sure that we could do a thorough review of any technologies that are sold or transferred to other partners in the region,” he said.

His comments came after a day after the UAE embassy in Washington, DC informed the US that it is suspending discussions on a $23bn weapons deal that includes the advanced F-35 aircraft.

In a statement to The Associated Press, the embassy said the UAE would “suspend discussions” on the sale, while meetings at the Pentagon scheduled for later this week between the two sides on other issues would proceed as planned.

“The US remains the UAE’s preferred provider for advanced defense requirements and discussions for the F-35 may be re-opened in the future,” the embassy said on.

A UAE official also told the Reuters news agency in a statement on Tuesday that “technical requirements, sovereign operational restrictions, and cost/benefit analysis led to the re-assessment” of the agreement.

The Emirati embassy’s statement comes days after the UAE agreed to buy a record 80 Rafale warplanes from France for $15.8bn during a visit by President Emmanuel Macron, indicating the oil-rich Gulf state has alternatives.

Former US President Donald Trump’s administration first announced the $23bn arms deal with the Emirati government last year. It is linked to the so-called “Abraham Accords“, which saw the UAE – as well as Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan – agree to normalise relations with Israel.

The $23.37bn package contained products from General Atomics, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon Technologies, including 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 Wall Street Journal newspaper, which first reported on the impasse on Tuesday, said that the US was insisting on conditions to make sure the F-35s would not be vulnerable to Chinese espionage.

The multi-billion-dollar deal between Washington and Abu Dhabi also has faced opposition in the US Congress.

An effort to block it failed in the Senate in December 2020, after some lawmakers – including leading members of President Joe Biden’s Democratic Party – raised concerns the weapons could worsen regional conflicts, notably in Yemen, where years of war have caused a humanitarian crisis.

Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai, inspects the open cockpit of an F-35 Lightning II during the 2021 Dubai Airshow in November [File: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP]

Last April, a US Department of State official said the Biden administration would move forward with the proposed sales to the UAE, despite widespread criticism from rights groups and arms control advocates in the US.

The official also said the administration would “continue reviewing details and consulting with Emirati officials” related to the use of the weapons.

On Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the US partnership with the UAE was more strategic and complex than a weapons sale and Washington was committed to working with Abu Dhabi to address their questions.

“We will always insist, as a matter of statutory requirements and policy, on a variety of end-use requirements,” said Kirby, telling reporters that those requirements on the use of American-made military equipment “are universal, non-negotiable, and not specific to the UAE”.

Kirby said meetings later this week between US and Emirati officials would touch on broad topics, but that the weapons sale would likely come up. He referred questions about details of specific arms sales to the Department of State.

The Department of State said in a statement that the Biden administration “remains committed to the proposed sales … even as we continue consultations to ensure that we have a clear, mutual understanding of Emirati obligations and actions before, during, and after delivery”.

A Department of State official also told Reuters on condition of anonymity that the Biden administration remained “hopeful that we can work through any outstanding issues”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies