How Joe Biden Can Stop Donald Trump’s Massive UAE Arms Deal

Akbar Shahid Ahmed
·Senior Foreign Affairs Reporter, HuffPost
·16 min read

One hour before Donald Trump left office, he quietly tried to secure one of the bloodiest parts of his legacy: funneling American weapons to Middle Eastern dictators committing war crimes and human rights abuses. As America’s political elite gathered for Joe Biden’s inauguration, officials from the United Arab Emirates signed agreements to buy $23 billion in U.S. weaponry ― an arms deal that nearly all Democratic senators had voted to stop weeks earlier.

The weapons sale, Trump’s largest, would make the Emirates one of a handful of countries to own the top-of-the-line F-35 fighter jet and give Abu Dhabi its first American-armed drones, as well as associated bombs and missiles. It’s a multiyear project that would drastically change the balance of power in the volatile Persian Gulf. Supporters say that would benefit the U.S. by deterring adversaries like Iran, but critics believe the move will create fresh tension in the region, worsen the UAE’s already brutal military interventions and expose American technology to China and Russia.

Biden halted the transfer one week into his tenure by placing it under review. It seemed like an early win for progressive legislators and activists who want Washington to stop fueling Middle East conflicts and hope the president will deliver on his campaign promises to build a more restrained U.S. foreign policy.

But it’s still unclear whether the pause in the arms deal will prove temporary. Despite Biden’s pledge to end the war in Yemen, which the UAE is helping drive, and his freeze on more than $750 million in sales of bombs to the Emirates’ close ally Saudi Arabia, Biden could ultimately permit Trump’s deal.

That choice would track with the United States’ history of overlooking horrifying behavior by its friends ― a tradition that many Biden administration appointees have publicly described as making the world more dangerous for Americans by fueling resentment abroad. It would thrill autocrats who fear that Trump’s departure will mean consequences for their violations of international norms. And it would undermine the Democratic-aligned effort to make American foreign policy more humane.

It wouldn’t be entirely surprising, however.

In late 2016, President Barack Obama’s national security team pledged to review American support for the bombing campaign that the Saudis and the Emiratis were running in Yemen, after an airstrike on a funeral killed nearly 150 people. The Obama aides ― most of whom are back in power under Biden ― ultimately declined to end the policy, only partially reducing assistance.

There’s space now to make major, dramatic change … unlike in the last two or three administrations. Daniel Mahanty, U.S. director for the Center for Civilians in Conflict

Trump then restored and expanded that support. U.S.-linked bombs claimed thousands more civilian lives and Yemen’s humanitarian situation became more desperate. Meanwhile, former Obama staffers blasted Trump for a policy that they established and failed to end.

As the Obama-Biden circle considers how to use its power this time around, hawks outside the administration are trying to box them in by treating the deal as a fait accompli and arguing that tweaking or canceling it would be an insult that threatens the Emirates’ recent decision to establish diplomatic ties with U.S. ally Israel. Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE’s high-profile ambassador in Washington, told a Feb. 1 conference that the review was simply “pro forma” and the process of completing the transfer was ongoing.

Biden’s decision ― expected in April ― will show how far he’ll go to resist America’s militaristic impulses and learn from Obama’s mistakes.

Leading figures in the debate over Washington’s approach to global affairs say his review must be significant and ambitious to the extent that it might tank the billion-dollar deal.

“Trump sought to rush through sales of our most advanced fighter jet and most lethal armed drone technology to the United Arab Emirates — bypassing congressional consultation and leaving many more questions than answers,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told HuffPost. “The UAE is an important security partner and we have reasons to work together. But we must have a serious debate about if the Middle East is going to be a safer place with Reaper drones, which the U.S. has never before sold into the region.”

He noted the UAE’s recent track record: growing close to China and Russia, funneling weapons into Libya despite an international arms embargo and providing American arms to abusive militias in Yemen.

“I’m glad that President Biden is reviewing this sale so we can get some answers and make more nuanced decisions that will ultimately leave the United States in a safer place,” Murphy, who chairs the Middle East panel on the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said. “This should be part of our larger strategy to reset the U.S. relationships across the Gulf to make sure they align with our national security interests.”

Erica Fein, the advocacy director at Win Without War, told HuffPost that many activists believe ending the weapons sales and accounting for the damage the Emiratis and the Saudis have done to Yemen with previous U.S. support is now a test of Biden’s “credibility.”

“Until that happens, we will keep pushing to end the culture of impunity for this war and demand … an end to arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE,” she said.

The Art Of The Review

Close observers of Biden’s team do not expect them to double down on the policies of Trump and Obama.

“There’s space now to make major, dramatic change … unlike in the last two or three administrations,” said Daniel Mahanty, a former State Department official who is now at the Center for Civilians in Conflict.

During the Obama administration, the officials conducting the review that ultimately maintained U.S. support for the Saudi-UAE intervention reached their final decision after Trump had won the 2016 presidential election. HuffPost understands that they felt a limited reprimand would not be immediately reversed by the incoming president and would create at least some pressure on the U.S. partners to end the war.

The first goal was arguably achieved: The Saudis did not receive new U.S. bomb shipments for six months. The second clearly was not: The two U.S. partners ramped up their vicious campaign.

Mahanty believes Obama shied away from a serious adjustment for three reasons: because the U.S. is so “addicted” to arms sales that the government struggles to unwind them; because officials at the time still felt U.S. assistance could “make change for the better” in Arab partners’ behavior; and because the president prioritized his nuclear deal with Iran ― a project the Saudis and Emiratis could make more difficult.

Five years and many civilian deaths later ― including in Libya, where U.S. intelligence last year blamed the UAE for a major war crime ― Biden’s team could think very differently.

In August 2018, an airstrike by the U.S.-backed coalition intervening in Yemen hit a school bus, killing multiple students. (Photo: STRINGER via Getty Images)
In August 2018, an airstrike by the U.S.-backed coalition intervening in Yemen hit a school bus, killing multiple students. (Photo: STRINGER via Getty Images)

National security adviser Jake Sullivan, who will likely have the greatest influence on the president’s decision, has said Obama’s Yemen policy “did not work” and suggested Arab states who want U.S. protection should focus on defense more than arming themselves for wars.

“Security assistance need not, and should not, always take the form of big-ticket items with flashy price tags,” Sullivan told lawmakers in 2019.

And just before reentering government as Biden’s special envoy to Iran, Rob Malley co-wrote a Foreign Affairs article arguing that the Yemen crisis proved Washington should reconsider its “far-reaching assurances” in the region in order to avoid “damaging entanglements.”

“So long as arms continue to flow,” the U.S. “remains entangled,” Rachel Stohl of the Stimson Center think tank tweeted after the UAE’s Otaiba said the weapons deal will help the U.S. be less involved in the Middle East.

Two of Biden’s recent appointees to the State Department are expected to channel progressives’ skepticism of the package: Christopher Le Mon, who rallied skeptics of the Yemen war at the nonprofit Crisis Action and now works on human rights policy, and Mira Resnick, a former congressional aide who now works in State’s office for arms sales.

But defenders of the deal will lobby the administration hard as well, and they can also count on internal support.

White House Middle East official Barbara Leaf, a former U.S. ambassador to the Emirates, has publicly pushed back against criticisms of the sale. Last year, Leaf and Biden’s top Middle East official at the Pentagon, Dana Stroul, published a widely circulated analysis of the deal that expressed some doubts but avoided a final determination on whether it should proceed. Military leaders supportive of the UAE and wary of the appearance of an American withdrawal from the region are also likely to back the transfer.

Advocates for the package are deploying traditional talking points: that America will lose out if countries seeking to buy arms turn to China and Russia, and that arming partners makes it easier to tackle international challenges.

That’s historically been an easy case to make in talking about the UAE, which fought alongside the U.S. in Afghanistan and which is vulnerable to Iran and its proxies. “There are weapons, capabilities and systems we can sell to the Emiratis and to the Saudis that will help them do more for themselves,” said Brad Bowman, the senior director of the center for military and political power at the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank and previously a longtime Republican Senate staffer.

Bowman supported congressional attempts to rein in the UAE and Saudi Arabia in Yemen and believes the Gulf regimes have previously sought advanced equipment they do not need. Still, big cuts in American support would mean “all we’re doing is increasing the burden on ourselves in the Persian Gulf,” Bowman argued, since in theory the U.S. military itself would have to get involved if threats arise.

Proponents of the arms deal say it also helps the U.S. pull back by solidifying the Emiratis’ new bond with Israel so they can tackle shared concerns in the region. A recent tweet from the UAE embassy said Trump’s deal would free “US assets for other global challenges, a long-time bipartisan US priority.”

And the Emiratis have experience in addressing one of the chief worries about the transfer: that it could help Beijing and Moscow, which often work with the UAE, to learn about or steal vital American weaponry. Ahead of last year’s Senate vote on the deal, the UAE and allies lobbied Congress aggressively, providing technical details on how they would protect the equipment. They could repeat that push, which they viewed as essential to keeping key Republicans on their side, with Biden’s team.

“If they are as capable in honoring that commitment as they say they are, they should be able to demonstrate it persuasively to the new administration,” Bowman said.

Well-connected weapons manufacturers are helping the Emiratis. A defense industry source told HuffPost the Biden administration should consider that the UAE is unlikely to use the F-35 jets in regional civil wars as they are too advanced for that purpose and suggested the Pentagon would have designed effective ways to monitor the UAE’s use of the equipment.

Those arguments have been around for months, however, and deep skepticism about the deal persists in Washington, particularly on Capitol Hill.

A Democratic staffer involved in organizing opposition to the package challenged much of the case for the sale. The idea that it’s vital for U.S.-Israel relations ignores the reality that Biden is set to challenge Israel’s hard-right government over his outreach to Iran and the Palestinians, the staffer said. The Israelis and Emiratis, meanwhile, have their own reasons to be close that have little to do with new American weapons.

Last month, 25 senators publicly signaled that they do not believe that U.S. efforts to connect Israel with Arab nations must entail risky policies. Eleven Republicans joined 14 Democrats in asking Biden to reverse Trump’s recognition of a land grab by Morocco ― a step that the Trump administration pitched the way it did the UAE sale, as an important side deal for Moroccan recognition of Israel.

Meanwhile, the suggestion that the UAE will be limited in using the equipment is hard to swallow, the staffer said: “They traditionally use technology and weapons that significantly overmatch whatever adversary they’re fighting.”

Though concerns over the Emirates’ regional meddling and U.S. rivals gaining access to sensitive material failed to convince the majority of senators to oppose the deal back in December, they remain live issues just months later.

“Consistently, the U.S. and the UAE have been in different places; on Yemen, on Libya, we’re not on the same page. Do we really want to be transferring our most advanced tech to that partner?” said another congressional aide.

‘A Lot Like An Arms Race’

Biden’s move on the UAE sale is not just about one big weapons deal. Permitting it is also almost certain to fuel a new arms buildup in the Middle East that could threaten more regional instability ― and embroil the U.S.

Under a long-standing policy that was codified into law in 2008 but is little-known outside Washington, the U.S. must ensure that Israel has a better military than its neighbors do. When countries in the area make large purchases of American arms, the U.S. almost always simultaneously provides new military capabilities to Israel to protect what’s known as the “qualitative military edge” or QME.

Skeptics and supporters of the UAE deal ― including the Trump administration ― agree that it would reshape the Middle East status quo, regardless of the Emirates’ peace agreement with Israel. “You can’t give the UAE the F-35, the world’s most advanced fighter aircraft, and not impact Israel’s QME,” Bowman, of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said. “QME is explicitly relative. … It’s not about the current political disposition of Arab governments.”

From left to right, Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Donald Trump and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan are pictured at the White House on Sept. 15, 2020, after signing the Abraham Accords, in which Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates recognized Israel. (Photo: SAUL LOEB via Getty Images)
From left to right, Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Donald Trump and UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan are pictured at the White House on Sept. 15, 2020, after signing the Abraham Accords, in which Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates recognized Israel. (Photo: SAUL LOEB via Getty Images)

The upshot is that continuing Trump’s policy likely commits Biden to new military support for Israel. Pro-Israel advocates have outlined a number of options. Michael Makovsky and Charles Wald of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America recently advocated “significant, visible, creative and game-changing steps to elevate Israeli capabilities,” including by speeding up Israeli purchases of U.S. weaponry and sending more advanced bombs to the United States’ depot in Israel, while Israeli officials have discussed quicker deliveries of aircraft.

Because the arms deal was presented as “the cost” of the UAE recognizing Israel, the question of what arms the U.S. must supply to Israel became inescapable, said Lara Friedman of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. Ultimately, the situation “really does look a lot like an arms race,” she added.

To Friedman, who tracks U.S.-Israel relations, it was surprising that Trump did not explicitly address QME prior to approving the deal. “I find it hard to believe that Congress would tolerate it,” she said, adding that part of why he seemed to be successful in doing so was loudly calling himself “the most hard-right, pro-Israel president in history.”

Whether sloppy or intentional, the lack of a plan makes Biden’s decision additionally fraught. Bowman noted that other Arab nations considering deals with Israel would likely look to the UAE example as a benchmark; historically, most of those countries have declined to establish such relations until Israel reaches a deal with the Palestinians.

“Peace should be its own reward, but it’s in our interest to demonstrate the benefits of making peace with Israel,” he said.

What the U.S. chooses to do will have ripple effects across the already volatile region ― including among American adversaries who might feel pressured to invest more in their own forces.

Jeff Abramson of the Arms Control Association noted that permitting the sale would increase the already serious gap between the capabilities of Iran and those of the U.S., Israel and their partners.

“There really is not a sudden surge in Iranian capacity that proponents of this arms sale could legitimately point to ― there’s just this massive influx that is really unnecessary,” Abramson told HuffPost.

Playing Politics

Beyond the strategic reasons for Biden to rethink the UAE sale, the president could decide that it’s politically costly to simply let it go forward given Congress’s assertiveness on the issue.

Proponents of the policy say the December vote settled the matter. “Congress didn’t have the votes” to crush the deal, the defense industry source said. All Republicans and two crucial Democrats ― Sens. Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, where Raytheon has large operations ― together shielded the arms sale.

But legislators’ persistent skepticism of the UAE and other Gulf partners like the Saudis, and the way they began to more aggressively exert influence over national security in the Trump era, will make it hard for Biden to preserve Trump’s policy without addressing the fact that the vast majority of his own party explicitly rejected it.

“Unless the Biden administration comes back to us with additional new information or new safeguards … I think members are still going to have these same concerns,” one staffer told HuffPost.

There’s lingering frustration on the Hill about how the State Department handled the sale, and there are multiple bills already drafted that require the executive branch to meet tight conditions to carry out the transfer, another aide noted.

Meanwhile, the coalition backing the deal could end up less committed to it than is widely believed.

For the weapons manufacturers involved, “if they can give the Biden administration some face-saving room on a highly problematic policy, it may serve their interests in the long run,” Mahanty, of the Center for Civilians in Conflict, said.

And for Israel, which will likely clash with Biden on a number of different issues and whose prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has badly weakened his relationship with the Democratic Party, this may not be a fight worth seriously picking.

Critics of the UAE package include powerful legislators who are strongly supportive of Israel like Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Congress could influence Biden’s decision before it is finalized or tweak U.S. policy regardless of what the president does, through tactics like inserting limits on the transfer in must-pass appropriations bills. “We have our ways,” the staffer said.

This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.