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American official says US ‘fully committed’ to F-35 sale to UAE

Deal negotiated under Trump and linked to Israel normalization will help US security ties with Emirates, deter shared threats ‘including from Iran,’ says envoy at Dubai Air Show

Two US F-35 Lightning II’s bank after receiving fuel over the Midwestern United States, September 19, 2019. (US Air Force/Master Sgt. Ben Mota)
Two US F-35 Lightning II’s bank after receiving fuel over the Midwestern United States, September 19, 2019. (US Air Force/Master Sgt. Ben Mota)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The US remains “fully committed” to a proposed sale of advanced F-35 stealth fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates, despite the Biden administration slowing down the deal, a senior American official overseeing arms exports said Tuesday.

Mira Resnick, a deputy US assistant secretary of state in the Biden administration, also told The Associated Press at the Dubai Air Show that Gulf Arab partners are not looking to purchase weapons from Russia as a hedge over American concerns about human rights in the region.

A high-level Russian delegation met Tuesday with Abu Dhabi’s powerful crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, at the air show, which prominently featured Moscow’s competitor to the F-35, the Sukhoi Su-75 Checkmate.

“The F-35 is already in this region, whether it’s Israelis flying the F-35, whether it’s American F-35,” Resnick said. “We would like the UAE to be able to operate the F-35 in a way that [they] can be our security partners and to deter threats, including from Iran.”

The proposed sale of 50 F-35s came at the end of former US president Donald Trump’s administration, reportedly rising out of a deal that saw the UAE recognize Israel. The $23 billion sale also included armed drones and other defense equipment sought by the Emirates, a federation of seven sheikhdoms also home to Dubai.

After US President Joe Biden came into office, his new administration put the arms sale and others on hold. That in part came over criticism of the UAE and Saudi Arabia over their yearslong war in Yemen, which has sparked the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and rages on today.

Israel is the only country in the region that flies the F-35, part of its so-called “qualitative edge” granted by America after Israel fought several wars against its Arab neighbors since its founding.

Resnick said she’d heard no concerns from Israel or other allies over the F-35 sale to the Emirates.

Mira Resnick, a US deputy assistant secretary of state for regional security in the bureau of political-military affairs at the Dubai Air Show in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Nov. 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)

“We are fully committed to the F-35 and transferring the F-35, which is a game changer for the Emiratis,” she said. “We are working with them as we speak to make sure that there are clarifications to the various assurances that were made to the previous administration.”

Resnick declined to describe what clarifications America sought, nor what assurances the Emiratis had offered. The UAE similarly has not discussed sale terms.

Human rights concerns also have affected weapons sales to neighboring Saudi Arabia under the Biden administration. Biden himself pledged during his campaign to make Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman a “pariah” after US intelligence agencies said they believe he ordered the 2018 killing and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

“We have worked with with Saudi Arabia to make sure that they are able to defend themselves. We know that there are complications in… this relationship and in relationships around the globe,” Resnick said. “But we continue to reinvest and make sure that they can invest in their own defense.”

Fragments of American munitions dropped by Saudi fighter jets also have been found at sites in Yemen where civilians died in the kingdom’s bombing raids. Asked about those attacks, Resnick said that the US wants to make sure American arms are “used in ways that advance US national security.” She said the US continued to work with partners on trying to prevent civilian killings.

As visitors enter the Dubai Air Show, they first see local Emirati defense firm EDGE showing off a wide variety of its own munitions. Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia in recent years have sought to improve their own arms industries in part to avoid seeing their armament supplies cut off over Western concerns.

Russia similarly has sought to make an impression at the show, flying a new attack helicopter and showing off the Checkmate fighter jet in a music-video-style presentation to journalists on the tarmac. But Resnick dismissed that effort, saying flatly that the Checkmate had “not in the least” ever come up in discussions with the Emiratis.

“We have not seen any strategic competitor be able to fill the kind of role that we play here in the region,” Resnick said.

Israeli companies displayed their hardware for the first time at the air show following Israel’s normalization of diplomatic ties with the UAE last year. The state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries company showed off a range of manned and unmanned naval and aerial drones.

Israel’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems displayed its “drone dome” that detects and destroys drones with lasers. Emirati defense officials were seen asking about the range and weight of the anti-drone system at the Israeli pavilion. In all, six Israeli companies are taking part in the air show.

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