AL-DHAFRA AIR BASE, United Arab Emirates — Jared Kushner and US officials visited a major American air base in the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday, speaking to Emirati pilots on the tarmac near the advanced F-35 fighter jets that the UAE hopes to buy as it normalizes relations with Israel.
The visit to Al-Dhafra Air Base by US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and top adviser came just before an El Al flight that had brought the US-Israeli delegation to Abu Dhabi was set to depart.
The US delegation arrived in the UAE on an El Al plane on Monday in the first-ever direct passenger flight between the two countries.
The flight followed an agreement brokered by the Trump administration last month that saw the two countries establish diplomatic relations.
While at the base near Abu Dhabi, Kushner and US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien met Emirati Maj. Gen. Falah al-Qahtani, a top defense official.
“The reputation of the Emirati armed forces has gone worldwide,” O’Brien said as journalists listened. “It is one of the most capable forces in the world and we are proud to partner with you and serve side by side with you.”
O’Brien added that the US expected a “significant security aspect” in the Israel-UAE normalization, without elaborating. Journalists also toured a joint command center run by both the US and the UAE at the site.
Kusher, not wearing a face mask amid the coronavirus pandemic, shook hands with the US and Emirati pilots gathered for the event. He also left a written message at the base.
“May the relationship with America continue to grow and together, through strength, will benefit as we bring more peace and prosperity to the Middle East and beyond!” he wrote.
The visit to Al-Dhafra showed the change in the relationship between the Emirates and the US, which established defense deals with the nation, a federation of seven sheikhdoms on the Arabian Peninsula, amid the 1991 Gulf War.
Emirati special forces deployed to Afghanistan after the 2001 American-led invasion that followed the September 11 attacks.
But the US military for years only vaguely referred to Al-Dhafra as a base in “southwest Asia.” In recent years, the UAE has been far more willing to acknowledge the US presence here and elsewhere in a country that hosts some 5,000 American troops. Dubai’s Jebel Ali port also is the US Navy’s busiest port of call outside of America.
Al-Dhafra has hosted the F-35 for years, as well as surveillance aircraft, armed drones and refueling planes. The American delegation’s visit to the base during the tour suggests the F-35 sale remains a key part of the deal.
A US official said that although the possible F-35 deal was not on the agenda for the visit to the base, the possibility it would happen could not be ruled out.
Air Force Major General Falah Al Qahtani, assistant undersecretary for policy and communication at the UAE Defense Ministry, said the UAE is a military partner the US can trust and that the country values the relationship as the two sides have shared concerns about threats in the region.
“Our relationship has been built on trust and mutual support,” Falah al-Qahtani told reporters. “We have stood together to fight extremism in all of its forms.”
Both Israel and the UAE view Iran as a threat.
Iran’s supreme leader on Tuesday called the UAE’s recognition of Israel “treason that will not last for long,” state media reported. Khamenei said the “treachery” was committed against the entire Islamic world and the Palestinians.
The UAE has touted the normalization deal as a tool to force Israel into halting its contentious plan to annex parts of the West Bank.
It also may help the Emiratis acquire advanced US weapons systems that have been previously unattainable, such as the F-35 fighter jet. Currently, Israel is the only country in the region with the stealth warplanes.
Speaking in a televised address from Jerusalem after the El Al plane landed on Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended the possible US sale of the jets to the UAE, repeating his claim that Israel did not know of the sale prior to the announcement of the deal.
Netanyahu insisted that O’Brien had told him that “the US is absolutely committed to preserving Israel’s military edge. We’ve done this for years, we’ll for sure continue to do this now.”
The US is legally bound by Congressional legislation to maintain Israel’s military advantage in the Middle East, though this has not always prevented Washington from approving advanced arms sales to countries in the region. Israel does not have a veto on American arms sales, but rather the US makes its decision based on Pentagon assessments of Israeli military power and how such deals could affect it.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.