U.S. Senate Backs Massive Arms Sales To U.A.E. After Trump Veto Threat

On 9 December, the United States Senate backed President Donald Trump’s high-tech arms deals to the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), following his veto threat against resolutions seeking to block them. Although introduced by Democratic Senators Robert Menendez, Chris Murphy, and Republican Senator Rand Paul, two procedural votes were mainly partisan, with the first tallying 49-47 against sale of F-35 jets, and the second 50-46 for opposing Reaper drone sales.

While supporters of the deal consider the U.A.E. an important Middle East partner, opponents criticized their involvement in wars in Libya and especially Yemen, considered among the world’s worst humanitarian disasters. Other lawmakers condemned the sale as lacking assurance that the weapons would not be obtained by unintended recipients or incite destabilization in the Middle East. Without a simple 51 vote majority to pass either resolution, Senate efforts to block the transactions will cease until presumptive President-Elect Joe Biden, expected to review them, assumes office on 20 January.

The White House claimed the deal supports U.S. foreign policy and national security by “enabling the U.A.E. to deter increasing Iranian aggressive behaviour and threats,” following their normalization deal with Israel. Senator Menendez contended that “[A]rming partners with complex weapon systems that could take [years] to come online, isn’t a serious strategy to confront the very real and timeless threats from Iran.” Insisting the U.A.E are “still a barrier to peace,” Chris Murphy questioned whether “the technology onboard those fighter jets [and] drones are going to stay in the right hands.” On Twitter, Murphy said Donald Trump, needing “to jam the sale before Biden took office to tie Biden’s hands,” ignored the process by not allowing Congress time to review it. Opposing the resolutions, majority leader Mitch McConnell said “[C]ongress should not stand in the way of this sale.” Supporters of the sale argued it would improve Israel’s security and is an important reward for the U.A.E signing the Abraham Accords. According to The Washington Post, Republican Senator James Inhofe said alignment with the U.S. made the Emirates “worthy” of the sale and suggested its rejection “would signal to our partners that even when they do everything we ask… [T]he U.S. won’t have their backs.”

Despite accusations of the Trump administration’s “rushing” the sale, the Senate votes occurred two days before the 30 day period allowing Congress to block foreign military sales after formal notification of their proposition ended. Although Mitch McConnell called this “baffling,” opponents of the sale expressed valid scepticism, recalling that weapons sold to the Emirates were obtained by al-Qaeda linked militias in Yemen. Philippe Nassif, Advocacy Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International U.S.A., warned of U.S. drones’ potential responsibility “for U.A.E. attacks that violate International humanitarian law and kill, as well as injure, thousands of Yemeni civilians already bearing the brunt of one of the world’s most devastating humanitarian catastrophes.” The Abraham Accords, considered significant for Israel, the U.S. and Emirates, is resented by Palestine, claiming to be “stabbed in the back” because the agreement reprioritized their Israeli occupation struggle, and Iran, whose president warned that “things will change” and “be dealt with in a different manner” if the agreement evokes “expanded Israeli influence in the region.” The arms deals demonstrate complex background to these issues; Congress and President Trump’s main concern should be discerning whether the weapons sales can enforce peace.

When the deal completes, in addition to receiving over 14,000 bombs and munitions, the U.A.E. will be the first Arab nation to acquire F-35s- the world’s most advanced fighter jets. Totalling $23 billion, the deal also marks the second-largest U.S. drone sale. Last year, the House of Representatives and Senate voted to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, but could not accumulate enough votes to override Trump’s veto against the measures. The recent attempt to block the deal coincides with Democrats’ consideration of a Biden administration’s approach to them. Biden’s defence secretary nominee General Lloyd J. Austin III, a board member of the defence contractor company Raytheon, is expected to testify before Congress. Retired since 2016, Austin needs a Congressional waiver to exempt him from a law requiring that the defence secretary be out military service for seven years; Joe Biden’s urges for the waiver is challenged by bipartisan concerns from Democrats and Republicans. 

Whether the arms deals are blocked or delayed, the concern that should remain is whether they will incite violence or can be used to enforce peace, based on the Emirates’ behaviour. Perhaps the deals can occur in phases; if minimum violence follows an agreed period of time after the sale of F-35s, then the Emirates should be allowed to purchase the other weaponry. In this way, concerns from Congress are addressed, while the Emirates acknowledged for their previous cooperation, and reassured of U.S. assistance if they prove trustworthy.