US F-35 sale to UAE shows regional shifts and improves Emirati deterrence in region

Signing of the Abraham Accords could bring the sale to conclusion if it is not derailed in Congress

The State Department’s authorisation on Tuesday to sell 50 F-35 jets to the UAE signals a regional shift and a changed military landscape in the Middle East.

The sale, long sought by the UAE, is valued at $10.4 billion. But it is the Emirates signing the Abraham Accords to normalise relations with Israel that could bring the sale to conclusion, if it is not derailed in Congress.

A State Department official stressed the long relations between the US and UAE, the threat from Iran and the Abraham Accords as reasons behind approval for the sale of the stealth fighter jets.

“The US-UAE relationship stretches back decades and is a force for peace and stability in the Gulf,” the official said.

“The F-35 helps them defend against and deter increasing dangers from Iran … and demonstrates our commitment to the success of the Abraham Accords."

Congress has 30 days to review the sale but its approval is not required for it to go through.

The Senate foreign relations committee has been in contact with the administration for two weeks over the issue.

The committee could choose to put a hold on the sale, or move legislation to try to block it which, if passed, could be vetoed by the departing president, Donald Trump.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared confident on Tuesday that the sale would go through without complications in Congress.

“We’re confident we will be able to provide them weapon systems that will ensure their security and do the work that we all need to do collectively to counter the threat from the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Mr Pompeo said.

Marcelle Wahba, president emeritus at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington and a former US ambassador to the UAE, regarded the sale as a progression of military and intelligence ties between the two countries.

"The UAE stands out in the region as a long-term, trusted partner," Ms Wahba told The National.

The sale helps the UAE to increase its military deterrence, said Bilal Saab, a former US defence official, who now directs the defence programme at the Middle East Institute.

"This is supposed to amplify the UAE's deterrent against more conventional threats," Mr Saab told The National.

"The UAE has no choice but to maintain air dominance vis-a-vis its adversaries and the F-35 certainly helps in that regard."

He said the UAE’s military competence answered concerns from Congress as to how the jets would be used.

"I'm not worried about how the Emiratis will use this platform," Mr Saab said. "Unlike most other air forces in the region, theirs is a competent one."

Politically, the sale would not have been possible without the Abraham Accords, says Nick Heras, director of government relations at the Institute of the Study of War.

“The sale of F-35s to the UAE is a sign of a shifting regional alliance structure in the Middle East," Mr Heras said.

"This move would have been unthinkable without the Abraham Accords because of the bipartisan Congressional desire to maintain Israel's qualitative military edge."

He said that an 11th-hour complication with Congress could arise but that the Abraham Accords have eased Congressional concern.