Last week the Biden administration informed Congress that it would be moving ahead with a substantial arms sale to the United Arab Emirates, including fifty top-of-the-line fighter jets and a suite of coveted Reaper drones. Inked in the waning days of the Trump administration to buoy the Abraham Accords, the $23 billion deal had been under review since mid-January. The proposed transfer of the crown jewels of the U.S. military arsenal to UAE raised concerns about human rights, theaters of deployment, and implications for Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge.
The biggest apprehensions, however, related to the UAE’s burgeoning ties with China. Although the sale may be proceeding, remarks by the U.S. State Department suggest Washington’s concerns about Abu Dhabi’s increasingly close relationship with Beijing have not yet been mitigated.
While the arms package for the Emirates had been under discussion for years, it served as a sweetener to cinch the normalization agreement between the UAE and Israel. Even before the Abraham Accords, the UAE was one of the largest importers of U.S. arms, but peace with Israel allowed the emirate access to the top shelf. Headlining the deal was the ultra-stealthy U.S. fifth-generation F-35 or Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) jet, heretofore only available to thirteen close U.S. allies including NATO member states and Israel, as well as the most advanced armed drone, the MQ-9 Reaper. Given the sensitivity of this technology, however, Washington needs assurances that the equipment will be appropriately protected.
To wit, in July 2019 NATO member Turkey was expelled from the JSF program after taking delivery of Russian S-400 air defense systems that could have compromised the aircraft’s effectiveness.
Despite its warm relations with Washington, the UAE’s growing ties to China remain a persistent concern, particularly in the context of the pending arms deal. To be sure, the United States is not requesting that the Emirates end trade or business with its largest trading partner. The Biden administration, for example, expressed no objection to the agreement penned in March for the UAE to domestically produce 200 million doses of the questionably effective Sinopharm Covid-19 vaccine. While less than optimal for Washington’s long-term strategic position, China’s investments of billions of dollars in Emirati ports and free zones aren’t a deal-breaker, either.
But there are a host of other areas of ongoing and expanding cooperation between the UAE and China that, in the absence of an understanding between Washington and Abu Dhabi, could scuttle the arms deal.
Military cooperation is one such area. In 2018, the Emirates purchased $40 million in weapons from China. Until recently, Washington had declined to sell unmanned aerial vehicles to the UAE, leading the Emirates to become a robust customer of Chinese drones. The Chinese military’s role in on the ground servicing these planes is unclear. These purchases amount to just a fraction of the billions of dollars per year the Emirates spends on American military materiel. Yet the threat of Chinese intelligence gathering on U.S. military equipment even in friendly countries is significant. An August 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable, published by WikiLeaks, expressed concern about a visit to an Egyptian F-16 aircraft base by a Chinese military official.
The fact that the Emirates is installing a Huawei 5G network is also a complicating factor for Washington. Advanced American military equipment relies on secure 5G networks, which won’t be available in the UAE. According to Christopher Krebs, director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, “if it’s running on a commercial network that’s supported by Huawei … [the Chinese] control whether we can communicate.” Not only does Huawei compromise Emirati communications—and by extension U.S. coms—it undermines the security of operations, logistics, and augmented strategic cooperation between the U.S. and the UAE.
Cooperation between the Emirates and China on the development of informational technologies such as artificial intelligence—one area of collaboration recently touted by UAE’s ambassador to Beijing—is another concern. Over the last decade, the Emirates has poured billions of dollars into AI, which has a broad range of strategic applications. This investment overlaps with and compliments the UAE’s recent technological and tradecraft advances in internet hacking, epitomized by the state-owned firm DarkMatter, which over the past decade reportedly employed several former American National Security Agency experts to surveil domestic terrorists, dissidents, and political opponents—including American citizens. In 2017, a subsidiary of DarkMatter entered into a business “partnership” with Huawei.
While the Biden administration has announced the completion of its arms sale review, Washington is clearly not yet comfortable with the Emirate’s commitments vis-à-vis its dealings with China. Following the announcement, Reuters reported that a State Department spokesperson said the administration expected “a robust and sustained dialogue with the UAE” to strengthen the security partnership—a diplo-speak reference to the need to hammer out additional understandings prior to the delivery of the F-35 fighter jets and MQ-9s drones. Fortunately, there’s still time. The Emirates has still not paid for the equipment, and it will take almost half a decade before the first planes arrive.
Still, reaching a common understanding with the Emirates about China is going to be a challenge. Abu Dhabi already has a “comprehensive strategic partnership” with Beijing that among other things, promises to “transfer technology and expertise in areas of information and communications technology, artificial intelligence, space and satellites and other advanced technologies.” Notwithstanding the promise of closer strategic cooperation with the United States, the UAE is going to be loath to decelerate some of its collaboration with China in these sensitive areas.
As with Egypt’s Camp David and Jordan’s Wadi Arava peace agreements with Israel, the signing of the Abraham Accords was not only a watershed in UAE-Israel relations but in U.S. relations with the Emirates. Back in 2009, the UAE took a positive step in its security cooperation with the United States by signing a Section 123 “gold standard” nuclear agreement, committing to forgo uranium enrichment in perpetuity. Undeniably, the accords opened new and significant opportunities for Washington and Abu Dhabi to work together on military matters and intelligence sharing. The potential transfer of the F-35 fighter jet and MQ-9 drone reflects the new possibilities for the bilateral relationship. While peace with Israel was a necessary prerequisite for these sales, however, it is insufficient.
As with our NATO partners and Israel, the transfer of these flagship U.S. systems implies a degree of monogamy with Washington, at least in some areas. Recall that in 2005 after Israel sold its anti-radar Harpy attack UAV, Washington temporarily suspended Israel from the JSF program. At Washington’s behest, the United Kingdom is currently in the process of purging Huawei equipment from its 5G network, leaving South Korea as the only one of fourteen JSF participant states that has yet to determine whether it will choose the Chinese provider.
In late 2020, the Trump administration engaged Abu Dhabi in an effort to reach a common understanding of how this unprecedented arms sale had heightened U.S. expectations of the UAE vis-à-vis China. The dialogue was productive, but the administration ran out of time. To ensure the integrity of this cutting-edge technology and by extension, the security of the United States, it will be incumbent on the Biden administration to hold the UAE to the same standards it demands of its other JSF partners.
David Schenker is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs during the Trump administration.