The world of politics and diplomacy remains susceptible to various uncertainties at all times. The latest example of this is a symbolic contest between the United States and its traditional ally, France.
The latter has seemingly scored a point against the US with the United Arab Emirates representing the ultimate goal-post. As the going with the F-35 got tough, the UAE walked out of a pompous military deal which was pitted as a breakthrough moment in the defense relationship between UAE and the USA under the Trump administration.
After almost a year of back-and-forth regarding the purchase of F-35s, the UAE finally drew the curtain on it and put all speculations about its purchase to rest. The Emirati government seems to have settled with its new Rafale F4 deal for now and has effectively relinquished all ambitions to pursue the American stealth fighters.
This development has come as a shocker as just a few days ago, the UAE had remarked that the 80 Rafales purchased from France weren’t an alternative to the F-35s stuck in the pipeline, hinting at a potential breakthrough to be expected in the future talks.
A French Comeback After AUKUS Exclusion
The relations between France and the US took a hit when the former was excluded from the trilateral AUKUS (Australia-UK-US) arrangement, aimed at countering China militarily by arming the Australian Navy with nuclear-powered submarines.
The pact not only left France, which is also an important stakeholder in the Indo-Pacific policy, out of this arrangement but also came as a snub to it. Australia decided to call off plans for procuring French Barracuda submarines and opted for the ones made by the US and the UK. This was taken as a betrayal by the French.
France at the time had been trying to enhance its relationship with Australia, the most important stakeholder in the Southern-Pacific and by virtue of its geostrategic location, a key player in the Indo-Pacific policy as perceived by the French policymakers.
Australia’s sudden abandonment of the French diesel-powered submarines and a new arrangement hatched without any preliminary knowledge or involvement of France came as a humiliation to it.
The leaders of the two states have since tried to normalize relations. France, however, has been on the lookout for partners in the Gulf-Arab region, a traditional American bastion. It was during French President Emmanuel Macron’s tour of the region that the deal for 80 Rafale F4 fighter jets was signed between Paris and Abu Dhabi. It has been since called a ‘big victory’ for French Rafales.
In its quest to diversify military and strategic partnerships, France has also lately been courting India, a member of the US-led QUAD bloc. So while relations seem to be stabilizing, France is believed to have decided to take its own course after being snubbed by an anti-China arrangement.
France continues to see it as an act of cornering, which is why the UAE’s decision to hinge on Rafales instead of going after the F-35s could be seen as a French diplomatic victory and an assertive response to one of its oldest allies, the US.
It could also be speculated that France filled the vacuum created by the US’ indecisiveness over the F-35 sale. Or perhaps, Washington and Paris could have reached some kind of unofficial understanding about ceding space to another — like France did in the Indo-Pacific theater and America in the Gulf-Arab region.
Israel-UAE Equation And US dilemma
The writing on the wall might not immediately be clear but there have been several impediments that led to the deal eventually falling apart. One of the major reasons for the US holding back the F-35 fighters was the Israeli concern about it losing the military edge that it has traditionally enjoyed in the region after the 1970s.
With the talks regarding F-35 officially shelved by the UAE now, Israel can go back to boasting the unrivaled air superiority in the Middle-Eastern region.
Earlier, reports had emerged of the US’ plan to provide a less stealthy version of the F-35 joint striker to the UAE, so as to assuage its all-weather ally Israel.
Even though both UAE and Israel signed the Abraham Accords in 2020 to normalize ties with each other after decades of acrimony, Israel’s discomfort with the UAE potentially operating the same fifth-generation stealth fighter jet was palpable.
The US could have been dragging its feet on the aircraft sale so that it could uphold the tradition of Israel having a five-year jumpstart over other partners in the region and adhere to the Israeli demand to maintain Qualitative Military Edge (QME), a proposition which was highlighted by the Secretary of State in the Trump Administration, Mike Pompeo.
Even though the days of tensions between the Jewish state and its Arab neighbors are behind, it would be premature to expect Israel to share the same military status as that of the Gulf-Arab world.
With Israel being an indispensable and most important defense partner to the US and the Gulf-Arab states like UAE treading away from its fold to that of its rivals like China and Russia, it could have been a tightrope walk for the American lawmakers.
Now that France will supply the latest version of the Rafale jet to the UAE Air Force in a historic deal and the latter has called off the F-35 deal, the US could be seen to have an easier escape out of the diplomatic dilemma it has been faced with.
Internal Bickering In United States
There have been many questions raised in the United States regarding the F-35 sale to the UAE, which would have snowballed into a much bigger and unwanted situation: an arms race in the Middle-Eastern region.
The American forbearance regarding the deal came from the threat posed to its partners like UAE and Israel by Iran and its proxies. Iran has been enhancing ties with America’s arch-rivals like Russia and China.
Pompeo had at the time of signing the deal referred to a potential Iranian purchase of high-end non-stealthy fighters like the Su-30SM from Russia and the J-10 from China as well as its interest in the Russian S-400 air defense system.
However, he probably failed to consider that Iranian military advancement would increase the demand for the American stealth-fighters by other states in the region, like Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
“What we risk doing here is fueling an arms race. Today we may be selling the F-35s and the MQ-9s to the UAE, but the Saudis are going to want it, the Qataris have already requested it, and it just fuels Iran’s interest in continuing to build up its own military programming,” US Democrat Senator Chris Murphy had warned questioning the rationale behind the deal.
This, in turn, could encourage Iran to further expand its military and thus trigger an arms race in the region. The Biden administration must have realized this and sat over the F-35 agreement throughout 2021.
Qatar’s official interest in this fighter must have further emboldened the ‘arms race theory’ in the American strategic circles and lawmakers.
Another reason why it could have been an awkward situation for the United States to sell its star-fighter to the UAE is because of the human rights record of the Emirati kingdom. It has been widely established that the UAE military has been grossly involved in torture centers run in Yemen with its equipment found all over the place.
France, too, has had to face the ire of human rights groups as it signed its biggest Rafale deal yet. With the Americans refusing to part with their reputation as the guardians of human rights and civil liberties, the sale could have given it a red face.
The Omnipresent ‘China’ Factor
With the expanding Chinese footprint in the world, the threat posed by this Asian giant is everywhere. The US has been reluctant to transfer its superior F-35 stealth fighters due to increased Chinese presence in the UAE.
The cooperation between the two has continued to expand despite several warnings from the West. Chinese telecom giant Huawei which was sanctioned by the West has made a foray into the Middle East.
The US has accused Huawei of close links with the Chinese state and PLA and engaging in espionage activities in host territories where it is allowed to operate. The UAE, like other American partners, was expected to boycott this giant from its 5G equipment trials. However, its refusal to follow suit came as a snub to the Americans.
The UAE government’s decision to shut down a Chinese construction facility abruptly owing to American concerns was believed to be a move to assuage the anxieties that were preventing the F-35 deal from coming through. However, with UAE pulling out of it altogether hints at an Emirati balancing act between China and the US.
America has expressed its concerns about the threat posed by China which could steal the stealth technology from the F-35s, in case the fighters were allowed to be transferred to the UAE.
“The UAE’s evident relations with China and Russia will put our military intelligence advantage at risk if such a deal is approved. There is no guarantee or provision that prevents UAE from sharing this proprietary knowledge,” the New York Center for Foreign Policy Affairs (NYCFPA) had earlier said.
“Well, as to the news about the UAE’s decision, their military buildup has been a priority for years and the Biden administration’s reluctance to follow through with a definitive contract was unbearable for the UAE. Among the Gulf states, its three immediate neighbors Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar all have twin-engine ‘heavy’ strike aircraft,” Miguel Miranda, a Philippines-based defense expert told The EurAsian Times.
Explaining the rationale behind the Rafale deal, he said, “With the F-35A out of reach, and the status of other exportable US warplanes uncertain, a combat-proven European multirole fighter is the better choice — the Rafale.
“The UAE has a defense budget it never disclosed but with annual spending in the neighborhood of $40 billion. Part of this covers an expeditionary reach that helps support regional allies.
I have no doubt the UAE envisions a future timeline where it’s a world power that can shape events in Asia, Africa, and the Eastern Mediterranean. For this reason alone it makes sense to build a strong air force with the best weaponry. This is exemplified by the Rafales,” he elaborated.
Even though an array of speculations could be attributed to the unpredictable event, the Israeli’s would be satisfied after signing the Abraham Accords and UAE pulling out of the F-35 deal; France would be jubilant post the historic Rafale deal; the US could be breathing easy and repairing ties with France in what appears to be a friendly encounter; and the UAE should also rejoice as they are set to acquire the most advanced, battle-proven Rafale jets from France.