A downturn in Taliban-Qatari ties has indirectly contributed to an increase in engagement between the Taliban and the United Arab Emirates, suggesting the UAE may become the new regional interlocutor with the Taliban.
The United Arab Emirates and Qatar have both been seeking to obtain the F-35 fighter jet – made by Lockheed Martin – from the United States. Quite a bit of media ink has been spilled regarding these procurement efforts, particularly the on-again, off-again UAE deal, conveying with overlapping, conflicting chronicles of the political and bureaucratic realities that the UAE’s and Qatar’s roads to successfully getting the F-35 will not be paved with roses. “I doubt the US military wishes to release the F35 aircraft to either the UAE or Qatar. Having said yes to the UAE we cannot just change our minds,” a former U.S. official said in an email interview. “The Qatari interest complicates our diplomacy,” the official noted, particularly due to what he termed the comparatively “cold relationship” between the two U.S. allies. The official suggested that any move to sell the fighter jet to one of the countries would be viewed with suspicion by the other. “If we go through with the UAE sale we will be forced to approve a Qatari sale,” or withdrawing the UAE’s request could foreclose a sale to Qatar. Beyond any diplomatic considerations, the real rub has to do with releasability and “end use” monitoring requirements, heightened considerably over concerns the growing Chinese presence in the Gulf will endanger the aircraft’s advanced stealth technology.
On Again, Off Again for the UAE
According to Emirati officials, Abu Dhabi has had an interest in obtaining the F-35 since 2014. Former President Donald J. Trump’s commitment to selling the fighter jet to the UAE was critical to Abu Dhabi’s signing of the Abraham Accords, aimed at normalizing relations with Israel, in 2020. In January 2021, on Trump’s last full day in office, Abu Dhabi signed a $23 billion agreement to buy 50 F-35 fighter jets, 18 Reaper drones, and other advanced munitions. President Joseph R. Biden Jr. put the deal under review when he came into the White House, but his administration informed Congress in April 2021 that it would proceed with the weapons sales.
However, Abu Dhabi recently told Washington it might halt talks on the deal. “The U.A.E. has informed the U.S. that it will suspend discussions to acquire the F-35,” an Emirati official told The Wall Street Journal. “Technical requirements, sovereign operational restrictions and the cost/benefit analysis led to the reassessment.” This came out shortly before an Emirati delegation visited Washington for strategic talks in December 2021. Yet soon after the reports on the halting of talks, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Washington is prepared to proceed with the sale of the F-35 aircraft to Abu Dhabi.
Regardless of whether the UAE’s threat may have been a “negotiating tactic” or an attempt to push for broader talks on the value of the bilateral ties, there are a number of factors influencing U.S. calculations, and selling the F-35 is not a straightforward “commercial transaction.”
One main consideration is the United States’ serious concerns about the UAE-China relationship and the particularly strong economic ties developing between Abu Dhabi and Beijing. Notably, the United States wants the UAE to put an end to a 5G contract with Huawei. Washington is worried that the technology firm’s presence could pose security threats to the F-35, and that China could take advantage of the 5G network and exploit it to harm U.S. interests and conduct cyber espionage.
In Washington, Congress seems firm on its stance toward China. “One of the few areas where there is bipartisan support in Congress is the US’s tough position vis-a-vis China. And a significant part of that is Huawei, though certainly not the only or even most important element. Many in Congress seem 100% persuaded that Huawei represents a potential cyber threat to the US,” a former senior U.S. diplomat said in an email interview. “Therefore, to follow through with either sale and possible compromise of F-35 on-board avionics, communication and weapons systems is unacceptable, despite whatever engineering safeguards that might be put into place. … I think the US wants to simply halt sales of high-end defense hardware to anyone not falling in line with certain security requirements, most especially when they might involve China.”
In addition to the Huawei issue, in 2021 U.S. intelligence agencies discovered that Beijing was building what they thought to be a secret military facility at the Khalifa port in the UAE. While pressure from Washington halted the development, Emirati officials denied that they were allowing China to build a military base in their country.
The U.S.-China rivalry has put the UAE into an uncomfortable position. Gulf states such as the UAE are concerned about being pushed to pick sides between Washington and Beijing, while they perceive their best interest lies in maintaining neutrality and balancing relations, even while acknowledging the decades long military and strategic relationship with the United States.
There are also indications that the UAE is considering turning to Russia for an alternative to the F-35. In November 2021, the CEO of Russia’s Rostec said Abu Dhabi had expressed interest in its new Su-75 Checkmate fighter, made by Sukhoi. While it is in Moscow’s interest to sell the fighter to the oil-rich Gulf country, this is seemingly merely signaling from Abu Dhabi to Washington that the UAE has other options, rather than a genuine attempt to obtain the Su-75. While ties between the UAE and Russia have been strengthening over recent years, the Emiratis are likely to be cautious about turning to other countries, especially ones that have a rivalry with the United States.
Moreover, the Chinese and Russian technology would not integrate with the UAE’s command and control systems that were designed by U.S. companies. This is likely to be in the forefront of the UAE’s calculations regarding turning to Beijing or Moscow for military equipment. The UAE also places great value on its defense ties with the United States. In 2019, for instance, Washington and Abu Dhabi announced a mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement, which aims to boost interoperability, coordination, and joint operations. Abu Dhabi seems to be aware that it could put U.S. military training – as well as the prestige of accessing advanced U.S. military technology – at risk if it seeks to buy a Russian jet. Therefore, unless the talks with Washington fully collapse, procurement of the F-35 jets is likely to remain Abu Dhabi’s preferred option.
In fact, it is for similar reasons that the UAE’s signing of a deal with France in December 2021 to buy 80 Rafale fighter jets should not be perceived as an Emirati abandonment of the F-35 deal. Instead, there are at least three explanations for Abu Dhabi’s pursuit of the $19 billion deal with Paris. First, like its reported interest in the Su-75, Abu Dhabi seems to be signaling that it has options other than Washington. Second, with the perception that the United States has shifted priorities and is pulling back from the region, some Gulf states, such as the UAE, seemingly do not feel they can rely on the United States as their sole security guarantor and are unwilling to base all of their security calculations on their ties with the United States. However, this does not indicate a shift in the UAE’s interest in obtaining the F-35. Major General Ibrahim Nasser Al Alawi, commander of the UAE Air Force and Air Defense, said in a statement to the state-run news agency WAM, “This deal is not considered as an alternative for the forthcoming F-35 deal, it is rather a complementary deal … as we develop our air force capabilities.” Third, the UAE’s F-35 request and the Rafale jets can also be seen – from a military perspective – as an effort to fully replace the over 130 F-16 and Mirage 2000 fighters that Abu Dhabi has in its fleet.
Indeed, there are other factors that could impact the deal’s fate, such as concerns about Israel’s security. Although Blinken did not give precise information about the conditions the United States set for the deal, he did say in December 2021 that the United States wanted to ensure that Israel maintains its “military edge,” and this will also be an important factor in Washington’s calculations. The Arms Export Control Act stresses that major defense sales must not adversely affect the qualitative military edge for Israel in the region. This point is likely to be articulated when discussions take place regarding any major sale to an Arab country. It means that should the United States eventually proceed with the F-35 sale to the UAE, the move needs to be done within the context of this legal requirement. Israel is currently the only Middle Eastern country that has the F-35. Related concerns, cutting in the opposite direction, relate to the long-term health of the Abraham Accords, as both U.S. and Israeli policymakers consider the importance of the F-35 deal to Emirati motivations for signing the accords with Israel.
Qatar Won’t Be “Outgunned”
In 2020, Qatar made a formal request to buy F-35 fighter jets from the United States, following the announcement of the $23 billion deal between the United States and the UAE. The move suggests that Qatar did not want to be “outgunned” if Abu Dhabi obtained the fighter. However, there has not been much progress on Qatar’s request. In November 2021, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Arabian Peninsula Affairs Daniel Benaim said, “We’re looking closely into these requests. What I can say is that Qatar has proven that it is an exceptional partner in defense issues, such as the expansion of the Al Udeid Air Base, Afghanistan and many others.”
There are various considerations for the United States in determining whether to sell Doha the F-35. One is the shortage of pilots and mechanics; unless this logistical matter is addressed, it is likely to be a hurdle. Another issue is Israel’s stance on the deal. In October 2020, Eli Cohen, then Israel’s intelligence minister, said that Israel would oppose any sale of the jet to Qatar, citing the need to maintain Israel’s military superiority in the region. Israel sees several sticking points, including Qatar’s refusal to pursue a normalization deal with Israel and Doha’s ties with Hamas. The relationship between Qatar and Iran is likely another concern. If Israel opposes the deal it would be unlikely to receive U.S. congressional approval, given the amount of support that Israel enjoys in Washington.
On a related front, Qatar has reportedly expressed frustration over a delay in buying four MQ-9B drones from the United States. While the Pentagon is in favor of the drone sale, the State Department has yet to act on the matter. This should be unsurprising because the Defense Department is generally pleased with making sales and does not usually oppose the idea of letting the State Department be the parent who says “no.” In addition, the State Department runs the legislative affairs effort in Congress for weapons deals. Quite frequently, a congressional issue tends to be perceived as the State Department’s hesitancy.
Indeed, although the reasons behind the delay in the drone sale have not been publicly announced, officials at the State Department are reportedly worried that the sale will anger some of Washington’s partners, such as Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
On January 31, Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani became the first Gulf leader to meet with Biden, one indication that a bilateral relationship previously perceived as cool is on the mend, helped along by Qatari diplomatic and operational help on Afghanistan. Initial media accounts of the visit reported that Biden announced the designation of Qatar as a major non-NATO ally and highlighted a $20 billion deal for Boeing 777X freighter aircraft. Additionally, the emir met with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and discussed weapons sales.
Rough Skies Ahead
Abu Dhabi and Doha both have a clear desire and interest in obtaining the F-35 fighter jet. The United States has many different concerns, such as the possibility that China will compromise the technology if Abu Dhabi does not terminate the Huawei contract, potentially fueling a rivalry between the UAE and Qatar, and maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge, all complicated by approaches of different branches of government and pieces of the U.S. bureaucracy. The U.S. concerns may indeed cause the deals to founder. But if, as is more likely, the past is prologue, both countries will eventually procure the F-35 but on noticeably different timelines and tortured procurement paths.
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