WASHINGTON ― The Senate will vote next week on legislation to halt the Trump administration’s $23 billion sale of F-35 fighter jets, Reaper drones and munitions to the United Arab Emirates, a lawmaker said Thursday.
Four pending joint resolutions of disapproval offer lawmakers a chance to block the Trump administration’s 11th hour proposal to transfer arms to the Emirates. Critics say the sales, meant to bolster the UAE against Iran, ignores risks to Israel and to sensitive military technology posed by UAE’s ties to Russia and China.
Asked about the legislation, Sen. Bob Menendez, who is sponsoring the effort to bar the weapons sale with Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Rand Paul, R-Ky., told reporters: “It’s ripe, it’s ready, it has privilege on the floor. We are gathering support for it and I would think sometime next week.”
The deal includes 50 F-35s, 18 MQ–9B Reapers, as well as thousands of munitions and hundreds of missiles. It was approved by the U.S. State Department in November after the UAE agreed to formalize diplomatic relations with Israel.
Because there are four resolutions targeting different parts of the sale, it remains unclear how the votes will be structured and whether each one will attract a different level of support. The resolutions are privileged, which means they can be called up without the approval of Senate leaders.
In the House, Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., introduced corresponding resolutions, but there’s been no announcement on the timing there.
In an interview Thursday, Murphy said the Trump administration briefing on the sales he and other members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee received last month convinced him the sale is being rushed to box in the incoming Biden administration. But he believed the deal, if it’s not defeated in Congress, may be open to change by the next president.
“I believe the Biden administration will be able to put additional conditions on sales or hold back weapons, but I haven’t dug into the fine print yet,” Murphy said. “My worry is there are certain sales we will be obligated to make.”
On Twitter on Tuesday, Murphy affirmed America’s alliance with the UAE but called the sales “very dangerous.” His concerns included the UAE’s breach of the international arms embargo in Libya and its alleged transfer of U.S. materiel to “extremist militias” in Yemen. He argued that the UAE’s acquisition of armed drones would fuel a regional arms race.
Emirati Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba responded to Murphy with an extraordinary Twitter thread Thursday, denying the UAE had ever transferred U.S. technology to an adversary and asserting the sales would aid the U.S. defense industrial base.
Washington has trusted Abu Dhabi enough to sell advanced American-made gear like F-16 jets, Patriot missiles and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile defense systems, he noted.
“The description of the UAE as having ‘very close, active defense partnerships with both China and Russia’ is a gross overstatement,” one tweet said. “The UAE has economic & diplomatic relationships w/ both and has only made purchases from each when the US could not supply critical equipment.”
Hinting that Abu Dhabi could buy advanced drones elsewhere, Al Otaiba said the materiel is needed to respond to a “growing sophistication and deployment by adversaries across the region, including Iran and non-state actors.
“We would rather have the best US-equipment or we will reluctantly find it from other sources, even if less capable,” he said.
Joe Gould is the Congress and industry reporter at Defense News, covering defense budget and policy matters on Capitol Hill as well as industry news.