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UAE envoy: If US unwilling to supply weapons, we’ll have to turn elsewhere

Ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba rebuffs criticism of $23 billion arms deal, pointing out that Israel has given green light and rejecting claims of misconduct in Yemen

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Emirati Ambassador to the US Yousef al-Otaiba at an event with then-US House speaker Paul Ryan, at the Emirates Diplomatic Academy, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, January 25, 2018. (AP/Jon Gambrell)
Emirati Ambassador to the US Yousef al-Otaiba at an event with then-US House speaker Paul Ryan, at the Emirates Diplomatic Academy, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, January 25, 2018. (AP/Jon Gambrell)

NEW YORK — The United Arab Emirates ambassador to the United States responded on Thursday to growing criticism in Congress against the Trump administration’s planned $23 billion arms deal to Abu Dhabi, warning that if Washington refuses to supply his country with the weapons it needs to secure the region, it will be forced to turn elsewhere.

“We would rather have the best US-equipment or we will reluctantly find it from other sources, even if less capable,” Yousef al-Otaiba said in a statement amid increased opposition to the deal that would include the advance F-35 stealth fighters.

More broadly though, the UAE envoy sought to sell the arms deal as an “investment in the US,” pointing out that the agreement would “support tens of thousands of US jobs, sustain the US defense industrial base, and lower future US research and development costs.”

“It is about advancing a more stable and secure Middle East. It enables the UAE to take on more of the regional burden for collective security, freeing US assets for other global challenges –- a bipartisan US priority,” al-Otaiba added.

52 F-35 jets line up for a launch exercise at Utah’s Hill Air Force Base in show of force and combat readiness amid US-Iran tensions, January 6, 2020. (US Air Force/R. Nial Bradshaw/Twitter screen capture)

The sale the ambassador is lobbying includes 50 stealth F-35 fighter jets, 18 advanced armed Reaper drone systems, and a package of air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions.

The ambassador’s statement was in response to a Twitter thread published Wednesday by Democratic Senator Chris Murphy after the US lawmaker was briefed by Trump officials on the arms deal along with the rest of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Murphy in the thread pointed to the UAE’s cooperation with Saudi Arabia in Yemen’s civil war where they “have killed thousands of civilians with US-made weapons.”

“In Libya, the UAE is in violation of the international arms embargo. And there’s evidence the UAE has illegally transferred US military equipment to extremist militias in Yemen,” he wrote. “It begs the question why the US would reward this behavior with a record-setting arms sale agreement. At the very least, we should receive clear, unbreakable assurances that the UAE’s conduct in Libya and Yemen will change. That hasn’t happened.”

The Democratic senator clarified that the UAE’s recent decision to normalize relations with Israel was a positive development for the region and that he was not entirely opposed to selling weapons to Abu Dhabi, but that the arms deal being proposed was too broad.

Murphy also expressed concerns that the sale could spark an arms race in the Middle East.

“In the classified briefing, Trump officials could not detail how our most sensitive technology — on the Reapers and our F-35 jets — will not find its way to Russia/China,” he added.

Al-Otaiba began his rebuttal by pointing out that Israel has given its blessing to sale after receiving assurances from the Trump administration that the US would not allow for Jerusalem’s legally-protected Qualitative Military Edge (QME) in the region to be threatened.

Regarding concerns over Emirati conduct in Yemen, al-Otaiba pointed out that the UAE had ended its military involvement there more than a year ago.

He argued that the UAE’s military intervention helped liberate large parts of Yemen from Iranian-backed Houthi control and that Emirati forces worked with the US to combat the threat of al-Qaeda in the war-torn country.

The envoy insisted that UAE air force’s mission in Yemen focused “on hostile Houthi forces, terrorist cells and FON (freedom of navigation) operations,” adding that they “greatly limited civilian casualties.”

People inspect the rubble of a destroyed building that was used as a detention center by Yemen’s Houthi rebels which was hit by an air strike by the Saudi-led coalition, in Dhamar south of the Houthi-held capital Sanaa on September 1, 2019. (AFP)

Al-Otaiba acknowledged that the Emiratis transferred “a limited number of US-manufactured protected mobility vehicles” but said these were only given to “local anti-Houthi forces working in the Coalition.”

The ambassador dismissed accusations that his country would not be capable of protecting American military technology, pointing out that the UAE is already hosting US F-35 squadrons at the Al Dhafra airbase in Abu Dhabi.

Moreover, he said Murphy’s characterization that the UAE has close security relationships with US rivals China and Russia was a “gross overstatement.”

“The UAE has economic and diplomatic relationships with both and has only made purchases from each when the US could not supply critical equipment,” al-Otaiba wrote.

Seth Binder from the Project on Middle East Democracy, a DC-based group that has lobbied against the weapons sale, that the Emirati ambassador “ignores inconvenient facts like [the UAE’s] illegal arms transfers in Libya and the Trump administration’s rushed effort” to ram the deal through.

The State Department official notified Congress of the massive arms deal in November — less than two months after the UAE signed a White House-brokered normalization agreement with Israel. On the record, the three countries involved have insisted that the arms deal was not part of negotiations that brought about the so-called Abraham Accords.

Tribesmen loyal to Houthi rebels attend a gathering to show their support for the ongoing peace talks being held in Sweden, in Sanaa, Yemen, December 13, 2018. (AP Photo/Hani Mohammed)

But Trump officials have acknowledged that the agreement put Abu Dhabi in a better position to receive such advanced weaponry, and a source with direct knowledge of the talks told The Times of Israel that both the US and Israel knew that the arms deal was “very much part of the deal.”

The Trump administration is now seeking to push the deal through before President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20.

While the weapons transfer has received the most vocal opposition from Democrats, questioning from Republicans during the Monday Senate Foreign Relations Committee briefing indicated that concern over the arms deal exists in Trump’s party as well, several congressional staffers told The Times of Israel.

In separate background conversations with The Times of Israel after the classified session, two aides from opposite sides of the aisle said Republicans had expressed “unease” over the sale due to concerns over whether advanced weaponry such as F-35 fighter jets and Reaper drones could be entrusted to the UAE.

Congress is not required to approve the sale, but it can seek to block it, which is what Murphy, fellow Democrat Bob Menendez and Republican Rand Paul are seeking to do.

US President Donald Trump, center, with from left, Bahrain Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump, and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, during the Abraham Accords signing ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, September 15, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The three have submitted a series of resolutions aimed at thwarting the arms deal, which must come to a vote by December 11 or face expiration.

A Republican congressional aide told The Times of Israel that it was likely the resolutions would be voted on, but even if they pass, they would not receive the two-thirds majority needed in both houses to override a presidential veto.

Because the transfer of such weapons takes years to come about, an incoming Biden administration could also block the deal, but there’s little precedent for a president to scrap such agreements made by a predecessor.

At the same time, Biden’s nominee for secretary of state Tony Blinken told The Times of Israel days before the election that the Democratic nominee would have to “take a hard look” at the F-35 sale due to concerns that it might threaten Israel’s QME.

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