UAE suspends discussions with US on F-35 sale over sovereignty concerns

US State Department official says Washington remains committed to sale

The UAE is suspending discussions with the US government to acquire F-35 fighter jets over “sovereignty operational restrictions”, an Emirati official said on Tuesday.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the UAE official said discussions over the sale, part of a $23 billion deal that also includes drones and other advanced munitions, are on hold as the country reassesses requirements.

“The UAE has informed the US that it will suspend discussions to acquire the F-35,” the official said.

“Technical requirements, sovereign operational restrictions and cost-benefit analysis led to the reassessment.”

The official, however, remained cautiously optimistic before a US-UAE defence dialogue on Wednesday that these issues can be resolved at a future date.

“The UAE and the US were working towards an understanding that would address mutual defence security conditions for the acquisition. The US remains the UAE’s preferred provider for advanced defence requirements and discussions for the F-35 may be reopened in the future,” the official said.

The outstanding issue, a person with knowledge of the deal told The National, is not related to the UAE’s ties with China but rather to sovereignty matters in the deal that the UAE has raised and that the two sides are trying to resolve.

A US State Department official said President Joe Biden's administration remains committed to the sale.

“The Biden-Harris administration remains committed to the proposed sales of F-35 aircraft, the MQ-9B [drone] and munitions even as we continue consultations to ensure that we have a clear, mutual understanding of Emirati obligations and actions before, during and after delivery,” the official told The National.

“We are hopeful that we can work through any outstanding issues and we look forward to the US-UAE Joint Military Dialogue later this week.”

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby emphasised the strategic nature of the US-UAE relationship.

“The US partnership with the UAE is more strategic and more complex than any one weapons sale. We are committed to working with the UAE to address their and our questions with respect to this sale,” Mr Kirby said.

He added, however, that the US insists as a matter of statutory requirements and policy on a variety of end-user requirements.

“That's typical. And these end-user requirements and protection of US defence equipment are universal, non-negotiable and not specific to the UAE,” Mr Kirby said.

Asked if the issue will come up at Wednesday's dialogue, Mr Kirby said that is not the intent of the meeting.

“It was designed to talk about the broad scope of our defence relationship with the UAE. But I would anticipate that this would be something that we would take advantage of, the opportunity to talk with them about their concerns, as well as sharing our concerns about the sale.”

Last year, the State Department announced its intention to sell up to 50 F-35 jets to the UAE, setting the nation on its way to becoming the first Arab country to acquire one of the most advanced weapons systems ever built.

Manufactured by Lockheed Martin, the F-35 is America's next-generation stealth fighter jet. The sale of these 50 jets is valued at $10.4bn.

Updated: December 15th 2021, 3:26 PM