In December 2021, the UAE informed the US that it would suspend talks to acquire F-35 fighter jets as part of a $23 billion deal with its Gulf ally that also included drones and other advanced munitions.
‘Technical requirements, sovereign operational restrictions and the cost/benefit analysis led to the reassessment,’ an Emirati official told Reuters. The announcement was made shortly before an Emirati delegation visited Washington for strategic talks.
In response, the US State Department said the White House remained ‘committed’ to the deal. Pentagon press secretary John Kirby also said that the US was willing to work with the UAE to address both countries’ concerns. ‘The US partnership with the UAE is more strategic and more complex than any one weapons sale,’ Kirby said. ‘We will always insist, as a matter of statutory requirements and policy, on a variety of end-user requirements. That’s typical.’
Why did the Emiratis withdraw?
The UAE, one of Washington’s closest Middle East allies, had long expressed interest in acquiring the stealthy F-35 jets made by Lockheed Martin, and was promised a chance to buy them in a side deal when it agreed to normalize relations with Israel in August 2020.
The Emiratis wanted the advanced American hardware to provide a credible deterrence against some of their regional adversaries and also to deepen their defence links with the US.
But many experts have cited the China factor. As one of the UAE’s most important trading partners, the US has grown increasingly troubled over China’s influence inside the UAE and had spelled out conditions that would ensure the fifth generation jet fighter and advanced drones wouldn’t be vulnerable to Chinese espionage.
The US has grown increasingly concerned about the possibility that China’s influence inside the UAE could be used to spy on American hardware like the F35. In 2019, Huawei partnered with du, a UAE-based telecoms firm, to roll out 5G network service. In the same year, the country’s Telecommunications Regulatory Authority — now known as the Telecommunications and Digital Government Regulatory Authority — hired Huawei to open a “5G & IoT Joint OpenLab” in Dubai. As such, Washington has pushed Abu Dhabi to drop Huawei from its telecommunications networks.
At the end of 2021, the US forced the UAE to halt work on a Chinese facility that Washington claimed was used for military objectives. Intelligence agencies in Washington had learned that Beijing was secretly building what they suspected was a military facility at a port, following which the Biden administration warned UAE that a Chinese military presence in its country could threaten ties between the two nations.
More broadly, the Biden administration has moved to unite allies behind a common approach to addressing a rising China. Perhaps worryingly for Washington, the interests of the United States and its allies are not aligned in many of the most important areas, particularly in regard to the Gulf states.
The move came days after the UAE agreed to buy 80 Rafale jets from France for 80 billion with France, the result of close economic and political ties. Experts say the deal came as a message to Washington that the Emiratis have other options if the Biden administration continues to stymie progress on the F-35 procurement.
In addition to France and China, the UAE has always been looking to Sweden. Saab, a Swedish defence and aviation company, opened an office in Abu Dhabi to meet the growing hardware needs of Gulf countries
Saab’s GlobalEye, also known as the Swing-Role Surveillance System, debuted in Dubai in 2019, but the company had not yet handed it over to its launch customer. This year, the aircraft made its debut as an operational asset of the UAE Air Force and Air Defence.
Furthermore, the Emiratis are pushing back against the US over American objections to Chinese influence inside the UAE. An Emirati government officially stated that the F-35 deal was halted the deal because Abu Dhabi believed the security requirements outlined by the US to protect the high-tech weaponry from Chinese espionage were too onerous, putting the country’s national sovereignty at risk.
Emirati officials have also expressed concern about a number of past events, including the Obama administration’s initially secret nuclear talks with Iran, America’s failure to respond to an attack on Saudi oil facilities by Iran-backed Yemeni rebels, and, more recently, its chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. There is sense more broadly that the US is no longer the reliable security partner it once was.
In the coming months and years, economic and strategic competition between the US and China will continue to put immense pressure on the Arab Gulf states, who, in turn, are playing a careful diplomatic game. As it stands, Abu Dhabi is more interested in diversification and being able to do business with both.