The US State Department on Tuesday announced its intention to sell up to 50 F-35 jets to the United Arab Emirates, setting the nation on its way to becoming the first Arab country to acquire one of the most advanced weapons systems yet built.
Manufactured by Lockheed Martin, the F-35 is America's next-generation stealth fighter jet. The sale of 50 of these jets is valued at $10.4 billion.
The sale was a "recognition of our deepening relationship and the UAE’s need for advanced defence capabilities to deter and defend itself against heightened threats from Iran," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said.
"The proposed sale will make the UAE even more capable and interoperable with US partners in a manner fully consistent with America’s longstanding commitment to ensuring Israel’s qualitative military edge," he said.
As well as the F-35, the State Department also notified Congress on plans to sell other sophisticated systems to the UAE, estimated to cost $23.37 billion.
"This proposed sale [of the F-35s] will support the foreign policy and national security of the United States by helping to improve the security of an important regional partner. The UAE has been, and continues to be, a vital US partner for political stability and economic progress in the Middle East," the State Department said.
"The UAE has demonstrated a commitment to modernising its military and will have no difficulty absorbing these aircraft into their armed forces. The proposed sale of this equipment and support represents a significant increase in capability and will alter the regional military balance," it said.
The UAE Embassy in Washington said on Tuesday, the sale of the F-35 "is consistent with the US National Defence Strategy to build and expand America's network of alliances and partnerships to share the burden of collective security".
"The UAE needs a fifth generation fighter to protect the nation, to maintain an advantage over increasingly sophisticated adversaries, and to advance the collective security interests of the US and its partners in the region".
"The F-35 will be an upgrade to the US-supplied F-16 which President Clinton first approved for sale to the UAE in 2000. The UAE has deployed the F-16 in support of multiple US-led counter-terrorism, freedom of navigation, and stabilisation missions in Afghanistan, Syria and around the Arabian Gulf and Peninsula," the embassy said.
Earlier this month, UAE Ambassador to the US, Minister of State Yousef Al Otaiba, told The National that the country had been trying to acquire the F-35 for six years but while the movement on the issue now was tied to the Abraham Accord, which established relations between the UAE and Israel, it was not a result of it.
“There are other items that we've been trying to acquire since [US President George] Bush was in office. So, these are things that we have operational requirements for, that have simply been held up, largely because of either [Israel’s] qualitative military edge or other release ability issues. We've now, I think, cleared this bottleneck,” he said.
The Abraham Accord, which was signed at the White House in September, "open up the aperture of us trying to get more sophisticated defence equipment".
Such moves were key as regional countries become more central to ensuring security and stability of the Middle East.
“More countries are becoming more independent, taking more of the responsibility and the burden of the region,” Mr Al Otaiba said.
“And whether it's F-35s or enhanced trade and increased investment with regional partners, more countries are going to carry more of the load themselves. It is important for the US to understand that we are taking our area and security very seriously”.
A State Department official said on Tuesday that "security co-operation and defence trade are powerful tools of American diplomacy contributing to decades of international peace and security".
"The UAE’s historic agreement to normalise relations with the Israel under the Abraham Accords offers significant opportunities to positively transform the region’s strategic landscape. Our adversaries, especially those in Iran, know this and will stop at nothing to disrupt this shared success."
President Donald Trump has supported the move publicly. “I would have no problem in selling them the F-35, I would have absolutely no problem,” Mr Trump told Fox News in September.
He also pushed for a rapid process. “We’ve never had a dispute with [the] UAE; they’ve always been on our side. And that process is moving along – I think hopefully rapidly,” Mr Trump said.
Congress will now have 30 days to review the sale, even if its approval is not required for the sale to go through.
Leaders from both parties have, however, expressed their intent to conduct such a review.
Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region appears to be a priority for Congressional leaders. The US has an obligation to ensure that Israel's military has the most advanced systems to keep its forces technologically ahead of any other in the region.
“We in Congress have an obligation to review any US arm sales package linked to the deal… As we help our Arab partners defend against growing threats, we must continue ensuring that Israel’s qualitative military edge remains unchallenged,” then-Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said in September.
Then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, echoed a similar sentiment. “The US Congress, on a bipartisan basis, will be watching and monitoring to ensure that Israel can maintain its qualitative military edge in the region,” she said.
Israel's defence chief Benny Gantz visited Washington in October and met his then counterpart Mark Esper to discuss the sale and Israel's military advantage.
The US agreed to supply new equipment to Israel to ensure that any it maintains the lead technologically.
“Since the US is upgrading Israel’s military capability and is maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge, Israel will not oppose the sale of these systems to the UAE,” a joint US-Israeli statement said after the visit.
On Tuesday, the UAE Embassy in Washington said the country's "requirement for the F-35 is the same as Israel’s which has accepted US assurances to maintain its qualitative military edge."
"The UAE has already submitted its formal letter of request to the US Department of State and will work with Congress and the Administration on the review process."