The outgoing US consul general in Dubai says he is “optimistic” the $23 billion deal to sell America’s most advanced stealth fighter jets to the UAE will go ahead.
Philip Frayne stressed the “very strong military ties” and close counterterrorism co-operation between the two allies.
The deal for 50 F-35 Lightning II jets was announced in the final days of the Trump administration and includes 18 Reaper drones and other defence equipment.
The US announced a review of all military sales when President Joe Biden took office in January.
However, talks between Washington and Abu Dhabi are said to be continuing over the aircraft's highly advanced technology and timing of delivery.
“The Biden administration have said that they want the sale of the F35 stealth fighters to go through," Mr Frayne told The National in an interview this week, ahead of his retirement that will also see him leave the UAE.
"They want to finalise that sale, it’s just a question of working out a few more details that are under discussion … so I’m optimistic about that.”
Meghan Gregonis, the consul general at the US outpost in Munich since July 2018, will replace him in August, Mr Frayne confirmed.
Mr Frayne applauded the “very close and strong” intelligence the US shares with the UAE about terrorist groups around the world.
He also emphasised the importance of co-operation between the two countries in tackling terrorism and other problems in the region.
Although tensions between the Gulf countries and Iran have become “calmer”, Mr Frayne said, the US shares overall concern about the negative influence that Tehran has exerted in the region.
“We have a very strong partnership with Saudi Arabia and UAE and other countries to try to counter Iranian provocations in the region,” he said.
“Generally, it’s a negative influence that Iran is having throughout the region.
"Putting mines on ships off Fujairah is an extremely destabilising move. Allowing the Houthis [Yemen’s Iran-backed rebels] to fire missiles and drones into Saudi Arabia is incredibly destabilising,” he said, referring to several attacks off the coast of Fujairah aimed at tankers and other vessels in 2019 and 2020.
A fluent Arabic and French speaker, Mr Frayne has worked in several countries in the region, including Iraq, Jordan, Egypt and Yemen.
The career diplomat said the Abraham Accords signed by the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco last year with Israel proved that prosperity and peaceful relations can be achieved with Israel while still promoting the Palestinian cause.
“This is a trend that countries are realising that they can have a good co-operative relationship with Israel while not abandoning the Palestinians at the same time,” Mr Frayne said.
“After the UAE took that step, we had three other countries following pretty quickly afterwards, so I think it’s kind of a trend that we might see more in the future."
Mr Frayne applauded the “good” relations the US maintains with the Iraqi government.
The planned withdrawal of American combat troops was only normal after 18 years, as the US is not an occupying power, he said.
On Monday, US President Joe Biden and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al Kadhimi agreed to formally end the US combat mission in Iraq by the end of 2021, more than 18 years after American troops were sent to the country.
The US-trained Iraqi security forces are now capable of protecting their country, fighting ISIS and maintaining stability, Mr Frayne said.
However, the US diplomat said Iraq still had major challenges ahead.
He singled out Iran-backed militias known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces as the most pressing issue.
“The real problem in Iraq is the funding and supply of Iraqi militias called the PMF by Iran … that’s creating a lot of instability and tension in Iraq and I think the Iraqi government has to confront that problem,” he said.
“I don’t think it’s going to make a huge difference whether we have a few thousand American troops there or not, we’ll still have advisers and trainers in Iraq so they will still be working with the Iraqi military but we won’t have boots on the ground.”
Expo 2020 Dubai
As commissioner general of the US pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai, Mr Frayne takes special pride in being part of the tremendous efforts by the Dubai government and Reem Al Hashimy, Minister of State for International Co-operation and director-general of the Expo 2020 Bureau.
“It’s really amazing the progress they have made in building up all the pavilions and particularly the Emirati pavilion, the sustainability, the opportunity, the mobility pavilions,” he said.
The Dubai government has put in “tremendous efforts to complete it on time for this year and it’s particularly impressive what they’ve done to ensure the safety of visitors”.
Although the spread of the Delta variant might “tamp down a little bit” the number of visitors, “there’s a huge pent-up desire for travel around the world” and there is no place better for people to go than Dubai for the Expo, Mr Frayne said.
“I think there’s a very good chance [to hold the Expo]. I don’t foresee another postponement. I think there is a very good chance that it will open as scheduled on October 1 and I think it’s going to be a spectacular opening,” he said.
“When Dubai does something, they do it big.
“The US is going to have a great pavilion as well and that’s thanks to the generosity of the Emirati government,” he said.
The US exhibits will emphasise future innovation, space co-operation with the UAE and many other aspects. In September 2020, the US Expo 2020 commission received $60 million (Dh220 million) funding from the UAE.
After three eventful years, the outgoing consul general had a message for his successor.
“I would tell my successor that the relationship with the UAE is among the most important that we have in the entire Middle East region and I think that there are huge opportunities for increased trade and investments between the two countries,” he said.