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Senate vote fails to thwart $23B arms package to UAE

This package would perpetuate violence and the U.S. presence in the Middle East — just when we're trying to get out.

Analysis | Middle East

UPDATE 12/9: An effort by Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) to stop the Trump administration from selling a $23 Billion arms package to the United Arab Emirates before the end of his term failed Wednesday in a pair of votes.

The first resolution, addressing the drones in the sale, failed 46-50 today. The second, addressing the F-35 fighter sale, failed 47-49, shortly after. Both votes were largely along party lines, with Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) joining the Democrats to ban the sales in both instances; Democratic Arizona Sens. Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema, each broke with their party and voted against one of the measures. Roll call votes here.


A vote that could take place as early as Wednesday would thwart the sale of massive amounts of U.S. arms — including advanced fighter jets — to the UAE, which has been accused of human rights violations at home and in Yemen, is fighting a proxy war in Libya, and is building up a de facto security coalition against Iran with Israel.

Most importantly, a sale of $23 billion worth of advanced U.S. fighter jets, drones, and bombs to the Emiratis would further enmesh the United States in the region, countering efforts to disengage after years of perpetual war and political tensions that have ultimately not made the United States any safer.

"At the end of the day, a vote for the F35s sale is a vote for endless war for a very simple reason: The UAE doesn't need F35s to protect itself — it needs them to tether the U.S. to its defense and to remain stuck in the Mideast,” says Trita Parsi, executive Vice President of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, which opposes the sale.

There is a vigorous effort in the House and Senate to stop the deal from moving forward. The Senate is expected to vote Wednesday on a set of resolutions by Sens. Bob Menendez (D–N.J.), Rand Paul (R–Ky.), and Chris Murphy (D–Conn.) that would block the sale. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D–Minn.) has proposed her own resolution in the House of Representatives opposing the deal.

The Senators represent different points of opposition to the arms sale, which was initiated by the Trump administration in the negotiations that led to Abu Dhabi’s agreement to normalize relations with Israel back in August. The package would include 50 F-35 fighter jets, made by Lockheed Martin, and armed Reaper Drones, which are manufactured by General Atomics, as well as an assortment of bombs and missiles.

Menendez and other Senators have raised concerns about the sales hurting Israel’s qualitative military edge, a decades-old policy in which Washington guarantees Israel’s military superiority over its neighbors, mostly by keeping a balance (with an “edge” toward Tel Aviv), between the arms it sells Israel and the military capabilities of its other partners in the region. Consequently, the DoD has already promised new and more advanced weapons to Israel in exchange for Tel Aviv dropping opposition to the deal.

Rep. Omar has spoken out against the UAE’s continued involvement in the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen despite officially pulling out last year. The war in Yemen has resulted in tens of thousands of civilians killed, famine, and crushing poverty. She has also cited the UAE’s destabilizing behavior in the rest of the region.

“Since he took office, Donald Trump has empowered some of the worst human rights abusers in the world — and the UAE is no exception,” Omar said in a November statement. “Amidst a deadly pandemic, we should be investing in our own communities here at home, not selling weapons to help dictators commit human rights abuses.” 

Contributing to both concerns is that Trump circumvented the review process for the Senate to debate the sales, choosing to ram this through his lame duck tenure and before the new administration comes in January.

“A sale this large and this consequential should not happen in the waning days of a lame duck presidency, and Congress must take steps to stop this dangerous transfer of weapons,” Murphy told the press in November. 

To block the deal, both chambers would have to pass an identical “resolution of disapproval” within 30 days of notification by the State Department of its intent to make the weapons sale. That deadline passes Dec. 10. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already signaled that he would stand in the way of any veto-proof passage (more than two-thirds support of those voting) of the bill.

“It’s a little baffling to suggest that, now of all times, a protest gesture with no chance of obtaining a veto-proof majority is a valuable use of the Senate’s time,” he said, adding that “the strategic realities dictate that Congress should not stand in the way of this sale.”

The arms package and the debate comes at a time when Israel and the Gulf states have become increasingly mobilized against their shared regional rival, Iran. Critics say that rather than allowing the United States to withdraw from the region as a growing chorus of Americans has called for, the sale of $23 billion worth of weapons would continue to tie Washington to the UAE as “defense insurance” against its adversaries.

Of course this is all a boon to American defense companies that stand to benefit from such a tremendous sale, and others, like the $8 billion package Trump is selling to Saudi Arabia despite Congressional opposition. The administration used an emergency declaration to push forward that arms sale to Saudi Arabia, as well as another to the UAE last year, breaking a two-year moratorium imposed by lawmakers and infuriating Democrats.

The State Department’s inspector general later found that the administration “did not fully assess risks and implement mitigation measures to reduce civilian casualties” in the arms sale.

Nevertheless, the arms industry is riding high and total sales are spiking across the globe, with U.S. manufacturers on top, as always.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which released new data Monday, the U.S. firms represent 12 out of the top 25 arms companies in the world, and continue to dominate the top five. Altogether, they represented 61 percent of the $360 billion industry in 2019. That dollar total was up 8.5 percent from the year before. 

Interestingly, an Emirati defense firm made the list of the world’s top 25 arms companies for the first time. The newly-founded EDGE accounted for 1.3 percent of all arms sales in the world last year, making it the 22nd largest global arms dealer in 2019.

EDGE was the only Middle Eastern firm on the list of last year’s top 25 arms companies. While the United States remains the dominant player, China accounted for the second largest amount of arms sales — 16 percent — last year.

U.S. Air Force ground crew secure weapons and other components of an MQ-9 Reaper drone after it returned from a mission, at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan March 9, 2016. (REUTERS/Josh Smith/File photo)
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