The United Arab Emirates is hosting the 16th edition of the International Defense Exhibition (IDEX) in Abu Dhabi, with almost 65 countries and more than 1300 exhibitors participating, in what is known as the biggest defense expo of the Middle East North African (MENA) region.
Besides giving countries a platform to present and market their cutting-edge technologies, the UAE has signed significant big-ticket deals. For instance, it recently signed a contract with China for the L-15 trainer cum light attack aircraft to train fighter pilots.
According to the aircraft manufacturer, the L-15 could be used for training pilots to fly 4th and 5th-generation fighter jets. The UAE Air Force mainly operates the American-made 4th-gen F-16 and French-made Mirage fighters. The French Rafales, which are supposed to be 4.5th-gen aircraft, are coming!
However, the affluent Emirati Kingdom, which has been shopping for advanced military equipment in recent years, still does not have a 5th-generation fighter jet. And this is, despite multiple years of negotiations with the United States for its F-35 Lightning II fifth-gen stealthy aircraft.
During Donald Trump’s administration, the United States and the UAE negotiated a contract including up to 50 F-35 fighter jets, 18 MQ-9 reaper drones, and over $10 billion in advanced munitions.
If the deal had gone through, UAE would have been the first Arab country to get both the sophisticated F-35 jet and the cutting-edge Reaper UAV.
These negotiations began in the wake of the signing of the Abraham Accords between the UAE and Israel since there were speculations that any such sale to Abu Dhabi depended on Tel Aviv’s tacit approval.
Legally, potential US arms sales to Middle Eastern countries are prohibited from including equipment or technology that could dent Israel’s qualitative military edge in the Middle East.
After signing the Abraham accord, the then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz said they would not oppose the sale since the US would ensure Israel’s military edge in the region.
Even though the bottlenecks related to Israel were almost eliminated, the China factor entered the scene. US officials expressed concern about the UAE’s flourishing relationship with China during this time. The relationship between the US and the UAE came under strain, especially with Abu Dhabi’s decision not to exclude China’s Huawei from 5G trials despite intensive lobbying by Washington.
This was a pressing concern for the US because setting up the mobile phone network, which has numerous cell towers close to F-35 bases, could enable China to track and gather information about the F-35s.
UAE’s Guarantees, Frustration, And Breakdown!
Negotiations continued from the planned date of April through the summer of 2021, despite the UAE’s response that it had a track record of safeguarding American military technology. For example, besides other equipment, it has operated the F-16 fighter jet for several years.
In the meantime, the Emirati kingdom started feeling resentful over how the US was dictating terms to the country. Some difficult and unexpected steps were taken.
In early December 2021, the UAE signed a contract with France’s Dassault Aviation to buy 80 Rafale F4 jets, the latest variant of the 4.5-generation fighter aircraft, and dumped the F-35 stealth aircraft.
The UAE said it had suspended discussions on a $23 billion deal for 50 F-35s and 18 MQ-9 Reaper drones it had reached a year ago. “Technical requirements, sovereign operational restrictions, and cost/benefit analysis led to the re-assessment,” said a UAE official.
Former UK Ambassador to Syria Peter Ford emphasized Washington’s hubristic demands, such as disabling any capacity the aircraft might have, which could potentially harm Israel, and gave the UAE good excuses to exit the deal.
Further, added pressure to downgrade ties with China appeared to be too high a price to pay since Abu Dhabi and Beijing have been strengthening their relations. Not just that, the UAE has been looking to diversify its options to avoid putting all its eggs in one basket, especially after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
However, despite all the dilly-dallying that has happened in more than a year, the prospect of the US selling the F-35 and MQ-9 Reaper to the UAE may not be dead. This becomes even more significant as military experts warn that the UAE may eventually go for a Chinese or Russian fifth-generation fighter aircraft in the absence of US F-35 jets.
F-35 Deal Is Still Alive?
According to a senior US State Department official, negotiations over the potential sale of F-35 stealth fighters and MQ-9 Reaper drones between the United States and the United Arab Emirates are ongoing.
However, the only caveat is that even if these negotiations are successful, it will be years before the Emiratis receive the combat aircraft.
A US State Department official noted that there had been several roadblocks in the negotiations, which in part led the UAE air force to withdraw its letters of offer and acceptance for the platforms and return them to the Pentagon in 2021.
Stanley Brown, the principal deputy assistant secretary for the bureau of political-military affairs, who spoke to Breaking Defense, said the deal is still alive.
On the sidelines of the ongoing IDEX Expo, Brown said: “We have a continuing and robust dialogue with the UAE on these sales. We remain committed to them, even as we continue consultations to ensure that we have a clear, mutual understanding with respect to Emirati obligations and actions before, during, and after delivery.”‘
Notably, the UAE and Israel have significantly bolstered their ties since the deal was annulled in December 2021. The relationship has slowly transformed into a military one, with both sides recognizing Iran as a common enemy.
As for the China factor, the UAE has strived to make some concessions. It reportedly halted work on a Chinese facility in the country after US officials warned that it would likely be used for military purposes. This is besides the many security assurances the Emirati kingdom had previously communicated to the US.
The ties between Abu Dhabi and Washington have also improved despite sporadic hiccups. For instance, the latter dispatched F-22 Raptors and a destroyer to Abu Dhabi after a massive drone attack by Yemen-based Houthi rebels.
The UAE has always maintained that it was a fifth-generation country and wanted fifth-generation fighters. Even though it unambiguously informed the Pentagon that it was no longer interested, the deal could be very much alive.
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