ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Multiyear negotiations for the United Arab Emirates to procure MQ-9B SeaGuardian drones are in their late stages, executives from manufacturer General Atomics said in an interview at the IDEX arms fair in Abu Dhabi.
David Alexander, president of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, said the relations his company has enjoyed with the Gulf country have remained continuous. “For about 10 years, we have been working closely with the Emirati Air Force, primarily through the MQ-1 program and the UAE showing interest in acquiring some of our other platforms, which has allowed us to maintain a tremendous and enduring relationship with them,” he noted.
However, it can be a lengthy process for capabilities such as the MQ-1 or MQ-9B to receive export approval and clearance. The former can collect intelligence and target threats, while the latter is touted as a maritime-focused system providing surveillance and reconnaissance, among other uses.
“The Emiratis couldn’t wait forever for U.S. export policy decisions to be made, so in the meantime they did purchase stuff from the Chinese, from Turkey and other partners,” Alexander said. “It has been this way all along. Does it bother us? I mean, it’s competition, but we are in no way afraid of competition.”
Two years ago, the UAE withdrew its letter of offer acceptance after the Biden administration stalled an agreement, previously cleared by the Trump administration, concerning the sale of precision strike weapons, F-35 fighter jets and MQ-9B drones.
But the company said talks over the drones never stopped.
“Negotiations with the UAE to acquire MQ-9B SeaGuardians are ongoing and showing continued signs of healthy progress,” said C. Mark Brinkley, a spokesman for General Atomics.
Given the important amount of ship traffic moving through the Gulf country, having effective and continuous maritime domain awareness is critical for Emirati security.
General Atomic officials hope to advance a push this year to integrate its drones with low-Earth orbit satellite communications systems, which could reduce operational costs and leave a smaller hardware footprint. Recently, General Atomics carried out three successful trial flights of the MQ-9A fitted with an LEO relay system in an evaluation configuration.
Although the company did not disclose the identity of the LEO provider, it is believed to be Space X’s Starlink.
“The next phase [for this] would be to provide a path for integration of the system into existing Reaper fleets for customers to use in an operational capacity,” said Brinkley, adding that company officials had already pitched the option to multiple customers.
Elisabeth Gosselin-Malo is a Europe correspondent for Defense News. She covers a wide range of topics related to military procurement and international security, and specializes in reporting on the aviation sector. She is based in Milan, Italy.