When the Biden administration announced in late January that it planned to pause and review former President Donald Trump’s $23bn arms sale to the United Arab Emirates, anti-war circles rejoiced.
The UAE had been repeatedly criticised on the Hill for its role in the Saudi-led coalition’s indiscriminate bombings of market places, funerals, weddings, and hospitals in Yemen.
But on Tuesday, the administration announced that following its 11-week review, it decided to move forward with the proposed sales, breaking with consenus among large segments of the Democratic Party who opposed the deal.
‘These are not the actions of a President committed to upholding human rights’
– Philippe Nassif, Amnesty
The $23.37bn package includes 50 F-35 warplanes and up to 18 MQ-9B armed drones, as well as a package of air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions. Israel is the only other country in the Middle East to be approved for F-35 purchases.
William Hartung, director of the arms and security project at the Center for International Policy, on Wednesday warned that the massive arms deal “contradicts” the Biden administration’s pledge to make human rights and US security interests central concerns when deciding which nations to supply US weaponry.
“From its role in the brutal intervention in Yemen, to its violation of the UN arms embargo on opposition forces in Libya, to its severe internal human rights abuses, the UAE should not be receiving US arms sales at this time,” Hartung said.
‘Undermines stability in the region’
The UAE in October said it had halted its involvement in Saudi Arabia’s coalition in Yemen, which has been responsible for nearly 9,000 civilian deaths in addition to 10,000 serious injuries, according to the Yemen Data Project. The war has caused more than 233,000 deaths, according to the UN humanitarian office.
At least four million Yemenis have been displaced, mostly by coalition air strikes, and more than half remain “just a step away from famine”, according to the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR).
Whether or not the UAE’s involvement in Yemen has actually concluded is unclear, as Yemeni and US politicians, as well as local watchdogs, have claimed the oil-rich Gulf state continues to support groups affiliated with the Southern Transitional Council (STC), which the Emirates helped prop up, as well as foreign mercenaries.
In Libya, the UAE supported Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) in its offensive against the internationally recognised government, continuously breaking UN arms embargoes on the war-torn nation.
UAE arms deals: US moving forward with sales amid review
Amnesty International had warned that it has “acquired extensive evidence” the UAE has operated armed drones in Libya on behalf of the LNA, targeting civilian houses and health facilities, including field hospitals and ambulances.
These activities have led international observers to be sceptical of the UAE’s plans for the US weaponry it will acquire, particularly because of the nature of the US’s weapons sale, which includes offensive as well as defensive arms.
“Continuing to endorse and enable the UAE’s reckless conduct in the Middle East and North Africa will only serve to undermine stability in the region and reduce the prospects for a peaceful resolution of conflicts in the area,” Hartung said.
Philippe Nassif, advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International USA, said the approval of the arms deal was “not the actions of a President committed to upholding human rights in the United States and abroad”.
“The startling fact that the Biden administration continues the previous administration’s unflinching support of providing weapons that risk adding to the devastating toll of Yemeni civilians unlawfully killed and injured by United States-made weapons should shake to the core every person who supports human rights,” Nassif said in a statement on Wednesday.
Biden’s move against his party
Biden’s approval of the arms sale is particularly controversial given the significant pushback it received from Democratic lawmakers during the Trump administration.
In December, nearly every Democrat in the Senate voted to block the sale, but their efforts fell short as Republicans, who supported the deal, held the majority.
Annie Shiel, senior advisor for US policy and advocacy at the Center for Civilians in Conflict, warned that Biden’s move to go forward with the massive arms deal “betrays the will” of the majority of Democrats who voted against it just months ago.
“Most importantly, it’s a slap in the face to victims of conflict in Yemen & beyond,” she said in a post to Twitter.
Jeff Abramson, a senior fellow at the Arms Control Association, also slammed the decision, urging the Biden administration to halt the deal as a way to send a message to other harmful governments.
“The Biden administration needs to be serious about no longer arming abusive regimes, especially those with a track record of misuse of weapons,” Abramson said. “The decision to continue arming the United Arab Emirates is the wrong one”.
‘Continuing Trump’s bromance’
Abdullah Alaoudh, research director for Saudi Arabia and the UAE at Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), a human rights group, called on the Biden administration to re-think the US’s role in the Middle East, given the Emirates’ influence across the region.
“Fulfilling arms deals with the UAE rewards the Emirati government for war crimes it has committed in Yemen and Libya and for its support for dictators like Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi,” Alaoudh noted.
“It sends a message to dictators around the world that Biden is continuing Trump’s bromance with dictators,” he said.
The Biden administration is also reviewing its policy for military sales to Saudi Arabia, including some Trump-era weapons deals, in light of Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Yemen and other human rights concerns.
It has not released the results of that review. In February, US officials told the Reuters news agency that the administration was considering cancelling past deals that posed human rights concerns, and limiting future sales to “defensive” weapons.
The State Department said on Tuesday that the estimated delivery dates on the UAE sales, if implemented, were for after 2025 or later.
The US anticipated “a robust and sustained dialogue with the UAE” to ensure a stronger security partnership, a State Department spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
“We will also continue to reinforce with the UAE and all recipients of US defense articles and services that US-origin defense equipment must be adequately secured and used in a manner that respects human rights and fully complies with the laws of armed conflict,” the statement added.
Sheren Khalel is a Washington DC-based journalist who has previously worked throughout the Middle East, focusing on human rights, refugee issues and conflict.