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UAE responds to criticism from US senators on F-35 sale

A group of bipartisan senators has introduced legislation rejecting the Trump administration's planned sale of the advanced fighter jet to the United Arab Emirates.
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The United Arab Emirates has responded to criticism from US senators about the country's planned purchase of US fighter jets, drones and other advanced military hardware.

On Nov. 10, the US State Department notified Congress of the US government's intent to sell dozens of the F-35 fighter jets, 18 armed MQ-9B drones and precision munitions to the UAE. The F-35 is a sophisticated fighter plane that only Israel has in the Middle East. Under US law, Congress can modify or block US weapons sales to foreign countries. Talk of the sale first began over the summer, when the UAE agreed to normalize ties with Israel.

The $23 billion sale is controversial in part because of the UAE’s involvement in the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and several other Middle Eastern states began fighting alongside the Yemeni government against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in 2015. The coalition has conducted extensive air strikes in Yemen to this end and has been widely accused of killing civilians.

The UAE began withdrawing military forces from Yemen in 2019 and finished the process in February, though it continues to provide support to its ally, the Southern Transitional Council.

Democrats have grown increasingly critical of the Saudi-led effort in Yemen, and the party’s 2020 platform explicitly called for the United States to stop supporting Saudi Arabia’s coalition. The Trump administration, on the other hand, is a staunch ally of both Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

On Nov. 18, Senate Foreign Relations Committee members Bob Menendez, D-N.J., Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., introduced four separate joint resolutions of disapproval to reject the Trump administration’s sale. One argument the senators made was that the president did not give Congress ample time to review the sale.

"In an effort to rush this sale of incredibly sophisticated weaponry, the Trump administration circumvented the informal congressional review process that grants the Congressional committees of jurisdiction time to ensure proposed arms sales of this magnitude are consistent with U.S. values, national security objectives, and the safety of our allies,” they said in statement.

The resolutions focus on the different types of weapons the administration wants to sell.

Murphy further explained his rationale for co-introducing the resolutions in a lengthy Twitter thread Tuesday. He said the UAE’s history in Yemen and Libya, where there is an arms embargo, makes the Emirates an unsuitable recipient of the advanced weaponry. At the same time, Murphy said he is not entirely against the UAE’s foreign policy, calling the Gulf state a “partner” in fighting the Islamic State and in “countering malign Iranian influence.” He also praised the UAE’s recent deal with Israel.

“In Yemen, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have killed thousands of civilians with U.S. made weapons. In Libya, the UAE is in violation of the international arms embargo,” Murphy said.

Several human rights groups also criticized the weapons sale this week, citing the UAE’s involvement in Yemen and its support for the Libyan National Army rebel group in Libya.

Murphy also said the sale could spark an arms race in the region.

“Fueling an arms race in the Middle East is just bad policy — Iran will respond with its own ramp up, and every other Gulf nation will want similar weapons to keep up with the UAE,” he said.

Menendez and other senators have also argued that the sale could undermine Israel’s military advantage in the region.

The UAE government in turn published a long response to Murphy from the UAE's ambassador to Washington, Yousef Al-Otaiba. In the thread from the UAE Embassy’s Twitter account, the ambassador said the UAE had stopped fighting in Yemen, citing the withdrawal from Aden last year.

“On Yemen, Senator Murphy is aware that the UAE ended its military involvement in Yemen in October of last year,” Otaiba said.

The ambassador went on to say that the UAE’s past actions in Yemen helped the United States fight Iranian influence and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, sometimes referred to as AQAP.

“The UAE’s intervention liberated large parts of the country from Iranian-backed Houthi control in the West and, working with the US, diminished the AQAP threat in the East,” Otaiba said.

Addressing concerns about Israel’s military edge, Otaiba said Israel did not object to the sale. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz said in October that they are not opposed to the UAE receiving F-35s, although Gantz later accused Netanyahu of misleading him on the issue.

The Senate may vote on the resolutions to block the sale the week of Dec. 7.

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