The Risks of Selling Arms to the Arab World’s Greatest Disruptor
The debate about the sale of the F-35 to the UAE has been highly politicizes in Washington – yet mostly for the wrong reasons. Looking at regional stability and security, President-elect Biden should reconsider selling sophisticated arms to the region's greatest disruptor.
Last week, the U.S. Senate defeated the effort to block the $ 23 billion arms deal to the United Arab Emirates, which had been an integral part of the Trump administration’s tit-for-tat to lure Abu Dhabi into the Abraham Accords with Israel. The debate about the sale of the F-35 to the UAE has been highly controversial in Washington – yet mostly for the wrong reasons. The objection of senior Democratic senators to the arms sale has mostly been political as it had come about as one of President Trump’s infamous transactional deals. What has been widely overlooked is that the Emirates unlike Egypt, Saudi Arabia or other U.S. partners with a questionable human rights record, has become an increasingly assertive player in the region only hesitantly if at all responding to reprehension from Washington.
The rapid ascent of Abu Dhabi as a soft and hard powerhouse in the Middle East post-Arab Spring has transformed the conventionally small state into a self-confident and independent player diversifying its partnerships beyond Western integration. The past four years allowed Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince and de facto ruler Mohammad bin Zayed (MbZ) to exploit the transactional character of the Trump administration to expand the Emirati footprint across the region without any value-based conditionalities being imposed by Washington. Supporting the key regional objectives of the Trump White House, namely the maximum pressure campaign against Iran and the unconditional support for Israel, the UAE in return received a hall pass from the United States to further its counterrevolutionary campaign.
Abu Dhabi’s pursuit of the myth of ‘authoritarian stability’ in the Middle East does not only run counter to American liberal values, but undermined America’s standing in the region as the UAE deepened its integration with like-minded regimes in Russia and China. Technology transfers from China to the UAE in the field of cyber and artificial intelligence (AI) allowed Abu Dhabi to become the region’s most important information power – often directed against civil society at home and in the wider Arab world. Cooperation with Moscow has gone even deeper as Abu Dhabi paid for Russian mercenaries in Libya, supports Russia’s rehabilitation of the Assad regime in Syria, and provides access routes for Russia into southern Yemen.
Moreover, the UAE used its airpower – which this U.S. arms deal intends to enlarge – against civilian targets in Libya and Yemen – in some instances deliberately. As the most important external patron to the civil war in Libya, the UAE have violated arms embargos, built-up its own surrogate force of counterrevolutionary militias, the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA), and has used military hardware also from the United States, to strike combatants and non-combatants alike to turn the tides in favour of warlord Haftar. In Yemen, Abu Dhabi maintains one of the largest contingents of mercenaries anywhere in the world, of which some have been involved in assassination programs against leaders of Emirati-backed militia groups. Most importantly, the UAE have violated U.S. arms end user agreements proliferating U.S. arms illegally to its own surrogate force, the Southern Transitional Council (STC) – some of these arms ended up in the hands of Al Qaeda-linked groups.
Abu Dhabi’s extensive (dis)information network in Washington spearheaded by Emirati ambassador Otaiba has meanwhile glossed over the UAE’s war crimes and human rights abuses, by diverting attention in Yemen towards Saudi Arabia and in Libya towards rival Turkey. Unlike other U.S. partners, however, where American arms sales have come under increased scrutiny, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the UAE does note respond well to reprehension from its most important partner. While Saudi Arabia and Egypt in the past have tried to find ways and means to accommodate the U.S. to improve their reputational standing in Washington, the UAE apart from spinning narratives more sophisticatedly than others, confronts criticism heads-on and with confidence that the relationship with the United States is one of co-dependence. Instead of giving into American pressure, Otaiba said last week that the UAE had other options if the U.S. decided not to sell.
Riyadh that has come under similar partisan pressure in recent years for war crimes and severe human rights abuses, is now trying to buy favours with the incoming Biden administration by showing good faith in finding a solution in the Gulf and Yemen Crisis. Abu Dhabi, the main culprit in the ideological war with Qatar, meanwhile doubles down in the war over narratives against its neighbour as it shows diplomatic indifference to the American effort to find a solution to the problem. Also in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is looking for ways and means to find a holistic solution to the multipolar war, the UAE is doubling down with its divide-and-rule policy strengthening its local surrogate, thereby exacerbating polarization and division.
Hence, while this is not the first time a human rights conditionality might not be applied by U.S. lawmakers in what is plainly a politicised debate over arms sales to a Middle Eastern partner, it is the first time that Washington’s leverage over this partner appears to fade. The assertive small state in the Gulf appears confident enough to go it alone, ignoring American concerns on multiple occasions as its relations with America’s regional rivals Russia and China are warming. Should this arms sale be eventually approved, America is effectively propping up the most disruptive Arab state at the moment.