WASHINGTON ― As part of a larger U.S. strategy for enhanced strategic cooperation with the United Arab Emirates, the Trump administration has agreed to consider a long-standing request by Abu Dhabi to enter into preliminary talks on future procurement of the F-35 joint strike fighter.
While no decision has been made, the willingness to consider extending a classified briefing to the UAE as the first significant step toward acquisition of the fifth-generation stealth fighter signals a departure from policy enforced under former President Barack Obama. The Obama administration had consistently rebuffed Emirati requests for the briefing dating back to 2011, citing Washington’s commitment to preserve Israel’s so-called Qualitative Military Edge, or QME.
In interviews, Gulf experts and industry executives insist the Trump administration fully intends to uphold congressionally mandated commitments to the QME, which aim to provide Israel the weaponry and assistance it needs to unilaterally defend itself against any combination of regional foes. At the same time, Washington wants to build on an expanded U.S.-UAE Defense Cooperation Agreement unveiled in May during Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s meetings with Trump and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in the U.S. capital.
“The Trump team has agreed to consider the request. It’s not a ‘yes’ yet, but I’m pretty sure it’s going to happen once the dust settles,” a former Pentagon official told Defense News. He was referring to the ongoing dispute between the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain with Qatar ― a rift the administration needs to amend before it can effectively implement Trump’s new strategy for countering nuclear and non-nuclear threats from Iran.
Experts cite a convergence of events that support extending preliminary F-35 program access to the UAE, the only Arab country to have participated in six U.S.-led coalition missions since the 1991 Gulf War and which hosts thousands of Americans deployed with the U.S. Air Force’s 380th Air Expeditionary Wing.
Firstly, unlike Saudi Arabia, which is some 20 kilometers from Israel’s Red Sea town of Eilat, the UAE does not share a maritime or land border with Israel. And unlike Saudi Arabia or other Gulf Cooperation Council states, the UAE Air Force has openly participated with the Israeli Air Force in international exercises, the latest in March in Greece with the Italian and Hellenic air forces and in annual U.S. Air Force Red Flag drills in Nevada.
Considering the common threat from Iran, and the time it would take for Abu Dhabi to negotiate a contract with Washington, let alone begin to take first deliveries, sources note that Israel will have enjoyed more than a decade of exclusivity as the only Air Force in the region to operate the F-35.
Israel’s Ministry of Defense declined public comment on the potential easing of F-35 restrictions for Abu Dhabi, citing sensitivities. Privately, however, sources said Israel is unlikely to object if initial steps are limited only to the UAE, and will not trigger wider approval for other GCC states.
“The two countries are not allies; not even friends. But under currently conceivable scenarios, if anyone thinks that the UAE will use this airplane to attack Israel, he or she is not living in reality,” said Shoshana Bryen, senior director at the Washington-based Jewish Policy Center.
Danny Sebright, president of the U.S.-U.A.E. Business Council, said Abu Dhabi has been frustrated by U.S. policy governing technology transfer to the region. “The way our policy works now is Israel versus all other Arab countries. But they have no negative intentions toward the Israelis and don’t see themselves going to war with them. And as such, they don’t want decisions being held up based on how other Arab countries may affect Israel’s QME.”
In a recent interview, Sebright said Washington should consider UAE’s requests based on the merits of its long-standing partnership with the U.S. and its contribution to regional stability. He said the new 15-year Defense Cooperation Agreement is meant to be an indefinite umbrella agreement that should ultimately cover the F-35 and other front-line American weaponry as well as joint research and development, more special operations cooperation, and other bilateral initiatives.
In a 13-page report published by the U.S.-U.A.E. Business Council last month, Sebright listed a broad spectrum of areas ― from counterterrorism to Afghanistan reconstruction efforts ― in which Abu Dhabi has materially contributed to U.S. security and its interests in and far beyond the Arabian Gulf. He noted that the UAE is one of the largest customers of the U.S. Foreign Military Sales program and ranks among the top 15 defense spenders in the world.
“U.S.-UAE basing agreements, joint training and weapons sales are not merely for show. ... The UAE has become not just a consumer of security, but also a provider of security in the Gulf region and the wider Middle East,” Sebright said.
Nevertheless, he warned that U.S. restrictions may force Abu Dhabi to turning to non-Western countries for major military systems. Earlier this year, the UAE and Russia signed a letter of intent to jointly develop a fifth-generation fighter based on the MiG-29, while Moscow announced UAE interest in potential procurement of the Sukhoi Su-35.
“Whether or not this transpires can be viewed as a reflection of the UAE’s frustration with the US acquisition process,” Sebright wrote. He said Abu Dhabi’s unmet F-35 request “is not an isolated case.” He cited the UAE’s purchase of Chinese UAVs as a supplement to a U.S. acquisition of unarmed Predator drones, the catalyst being Washington’s refusal to approve strike-capable systems.
“The UAE is not only a consumer of US security, but a provider for US security. ... While they may be willing to consider non-Western suppliers, it is important to emphasize that it continues to demonstrate a strong preference for US [weaponry] … which comes with US training and support and further reinforces the bilateral defense and security relationship that is so important” to both countries, the report concludes.
Simon Henderson, director of the Washington Institute’s Gulf and Energy Policy Program, suggested that Saudi Arabia could dispel concerns regarding its intentions toward Israel by publicly participating in U.S.-led exercises aimed at regional defense.
“The US would consider selling F-35s to the Saudis if the Saudis were not a threat to Israel. And an indication they are not a threat to Israel would be for Saudi Arabia and Israel to take part in the same third-party air exercises,” Henderson said.
Opall-Rome is Israel bureau chief for Defense News. She has been covering U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation, Mideast security and missile defense since May 1988. She lives north of Tel Aviv. Visit her website at www.opall-rome.com.