Not more than 24 hours after former Vice President Joe Biden surpassed the required 270 Electoral College votes to become President-elect, making President Donald Trump a one-term president, the Trump administration formally notified Congress of a massive arms transfer to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) totaling US$23 billion.
The transfer includes 50 state-of-the-art F-35 fighter jets, 18 MQ-9 Reaper drones, and a munitions package comprising of thousands of MK82 dumb bombs and run-of-the-mill guided bombs and missiles. The sale has invoked howls of protest from Congressional Democrats, human rights activists, and many US allies, who fear the unprecedented deal will exacerbate and prolong conflicts in the UAE and Libya, while also igniting a new arms race in the Middle East and North Africa region.
The sale has invoked howls of protest from Congressional Democrats, human rights activists, and many US allies.
The timing of the deal has also raised concerns, since Trump is an outgoing president, and the incoming Biden administration has indicated it opposes the transfer of F-35 fighter jets, blank check arms deals, and continuation of the war in Yemen.
Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) accused Trump of rushing the transfer through “before the end of his term,” while Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) referred to the “massive arms deal” as “completely inappropriate for a lame duck administration,” describing it as an “attempt to narrow options in the Middle East for President-elect Biden when he takes office.”
The Atlantic Council likened it to “scorched earth tactics” that are meant to kill hopes of the Biden administration re-entering or renewing the Iran denuclearization deal on behalf of Trump’s Arab Gulf benefactors.
Amnesty International called on the US to “immediately halt transfers of all arms, equipment and military assistance to all parties,” and warned that the deal will make the US responsible for the further deaths of civilians in Yemen and Libya, and possible war crimes. The latter is a reality as dozens of former and current government officials have expressed fears they could be prosecuted for war crimes over the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, a view also shared by several United Nations Special Rapporteurs.
Amnesty International expressed particular concern regarding the sale of US drones, which have been “used to target civilian houses and health facilities, including field hospitals and ambulances which is especially concerning as medics, medical transport and medical facilities, including those treating wounded or sick fighters, are specially protected under international humanitarian law.”
Then there’s also the fact the UAE has openly violated United Nations arms embargoes in Libya and Somalia, which a UN expert described as “extensive, blatant and with complete disregard for the sanctions measures.”
“If I were in the State Department, I would be freaking out about my potential for liability,” Oona Hathaway, a Yale Law School professor and a Defense Department lawyer in the Obama administration, told the New York Times in September. “I think anyone who’s involved in this program should get themselves a lawyer. It’s very dangerous territory the US is in, continuing to provide support given the number of civilians who have been killed.”
The deal makes the UAE the first country outside of Israel to procure the F-35 fighter jet, considered the most advanced piece of military hardware in human history.
Human rights activists are also fretting over the emergence of a new arms race in the Middle East, especially because the deal makes the UAE the first country outside of Israel to procure the F-35 fighter jet, considered the most advanced piece of military hardware in human history, one that almost guarantees aerial dominance to those who have access to it.
“In 20 years’ time, air forces will be doing things with F-35s that we don’t think of today as things fighter jets do,” Justin Bronk of the UK-based Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) told the BBC recently, referring to the warplanes unique ability to jam enemy air defenses and conventional missiles by delivering “cyber payloads.”
Moreover, the Trump administration placated Israel’s concerns with the UAE acquiring the F-35 by promising it exclusive access to an “advanced weapon systems that will significantly upgrade Israel’s military capabilities” and be “fully consistent” with the United States government’s policy of maintaining Israel’s “qualitative military advantage” over its neighbors.
What that “advanced weapon system” is – is anybody’s guess, but one thing is certain, every government in the region will either want it or build a capacity to nullify or minimize its potential threat or payload. It’s the fundamental logic that has underpinned all previous regional and global arms races.
The Middle East was already at risk of tumbling head first towards a nuclear and ballistic missiles arms race, as a result of China’s meddling in the region.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that the Middle East was already at risk of tumbling head first towards a nuclear and ballistic missiles arms race, as a result of China’s meddling in the region, particularly in the way Beijing has been helping Saudi Arabia’s drive to acquire nuclear technology, a desire driven by fears that nothing will stop Iran from developing or acquiring a nuclear weapon.
“Ironically, Chinese support for a peaceful Saudi nuclear program that inevitably would provide the kingdom with building blocks that could contribute to the development of nuclear weapons risks driving a wedge between Saudi Arabia and Israel,” observes Dr. James Dorsey for Inside Arabia.
Ultimately, Trump’s weapons transfer to the UAE will lead only to more civilian deaths and suffering, more repressive authoritarian rule, prolong already protracted conflicts, and open the floodgates for ever larger arms deals and then a new arms race in the Middle East.