Middle East

Blinken says US ready to move forward with sale of F-35s, drones to UAE

KUALA LUMPUR (REUTERS) – The United States is prepared to move forward with the sale of F-35 fighter jets and drones to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday (Dec 15), after reports that the UAE intended to suspend discussion of the deal.

A UAE official on Tuesday told Reuters that it had informed the US it would suspend discussions to acquire F-35 fighter jets, part of a US$23 billion (S$32 billion) deal that includes drones and other advanced munitions.

The official cited “technical requirements, sovereign operational restrictions, and cost/benefit analysis” as reasons that have prompted a re-assessment of the deal by the UAE government.

The UAE had signed an agreement to purchase 50 F-35 jets and up to 18 armed drones, people familiar with the situation told Reuters in January.

Speaking at a news conference in Kuala Lumpur, Mr Blinken said Washington had to conduct some reviews.

“We’ve wanted to make sure, for example, that our commitment to Israel’s qualitative military edge is assured, so we wanted to make sure that we could do a thorough review of any technologies that are sold or transferred to other partners in the region, including the UAE,” Mr Blinken said.

“But I think we continue to be prepared to move forward if the UAE continues to want to pursue both of these,” he said.

The sale of 50 F-35 warplanes made by Lockheed Martin to the UAE had slowed amid concerns in Washington over Abu Dhabi’s relationship with China, including the use of Huawei 5G technology in the country.

“The US remains the UAE’s preferred provider for advanced defence requirements and discussions for the F-35 may be re-opened in the future,” the UAE official said, adding that there were discussions to “address mutual defence security conditions for the acquisition”.

A person briefed on the negotiations said that for several months, sticking points between the US and the UAE revolved around how the stealthy jets can be deployed and how much of the sophisticated F-35 technology the Emiratis will be allowed to take advantage of. The person asked not to be identified by name or by association with either country.

Earlier, at the Pentagon, spokesman John Kirby had said the US partnership with the UAE was more strategic and complex than a weapons sale and Washington was committed to working with Abu Dhabi to address their questions.

“We will always insist, as a matter of statutory requirements and policy, on a variety of end use requirements,” Mr Kirby said.

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He added that a meeting between US and UAE officials at the Pentagon later this week was set to be about broad topics but anticipated that the weapons sale would come up.

Mr Kirby referred questions about details of specific arms sales to the State Department.

A State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the Biden administration was committed to the proposed sales of the F-35 aircraft along with the MQ-9B and munitions.

“We are hopeful that we can work through any outstanding issues,” the official said.

Lockheed Martin referred requests for comment to the US and UAE governments.

The UAE, one of Washington’s closest Middle East allies, had long expressed interest in acquiring the stealthy F-35 jets, and was promised a chance to buy them in a side deal when it agreed to normalise relations with Israel in August last year.

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