U.S. President Donald Trump holds a chart of military hardware sales as he welcomes Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S., March 20, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Biden slams the brakes on UAE, Saudi weapons gravy train — for now.

That screeching sound you might have heard Wednesday was the Biden administration slamming the brakes on the multibillion-dollar weapons gravy train that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have enjoyed for the last four years out of Washington.

According to the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, President Biden is playing Jack Frost and putting the freeze on nearly two-dozen packages that the Trump administration approved and the Congress couldn’t stop. Those packages — which include the controversial sale of F-35s to the UAE in exchange for their agreement to normalize relations with Israel — are worth at least $31 billion. That would include the recent $23 billion UAE package, and the $8 billion worth of weapons for UAE and Saudi Arabia approved by Congress in late 2019 under an emergency declaration

The new administration confirmed it will be reviewing the deals. The Journal report suggests this is pro forma, and that the sales will likely go though anyway. But for critics of selling more weapons to the Kingdom and UAE, this is a welcome monkey wrench. It not only buys time for Congress to throw up more roadblocks, but signals that perhaps Biden is truly serious about ending U.S. assistance to the Saudi-led coalition, which has pummeled Yemen with American-made bombs for the last six years of its war, indiscriminately killing and wounding at least 17,500 civilians (as of early 2020), and sending the country into a tailspin of disease and famine. 

While the UAE claimed to withdraw its forces from Yemen at the end of 2019, according to the Quincy Institute’s Annelle Sheline, it continues to occupy key ports, airports, and infrastructure, while also funding separatist fights. “If the Biden administration is serious about addressing the factors driving violence in Yemen, the role of the UAE cannot be ignored,” she said.

The UAE appears to have the most to lose here, given the sweet deal they were getting for America’s premier stealth fighter, plus killer drones and other munitions. But they were on a roll, points out William Hartung at the Center for International Policy, who says the $23 billion package was the biggest deal arranged by Trump in his four years of office, rivaled only by a $23 billion shipbuilding offer to Japan.

And it wasn’t just the Trump administration — the UAE made some 39 deals with the United States since 2009, bringing the total of all its weapons sales, including the pending agreements, to $59 billion, according to Hartung’s new research paper.

Putting a stop to it permanently is what is at stake. “Selling more weapons to the Saudis and the Emiratis would further tangle the U.S. in their affairs,” says Sheline. “The current U.S. involvement in the devastating war on Yemen is the result of U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia.”

Hartung adds that the UAE has been intervening in the civil war in Libya, supplying weapons (in violation of  U.N. resolutions) to the forces of rebel militia leader Gen. Khalifa Haftar, and “carrying out air and drone strikes in support of his military campaigns in the country, which are contrary to the objectives of the U.S. policy of supporting the U.N.-recognized government (the GNA, or Government of National Accord).”

The major defense contractors behind these sales, in particular Lockheed and Raytheon, have enjoyed cozy and lucrative access to top officials in the White House and Pentagon over the last four years. Raytheon must have been sensing the cool breeze coming from the Biden administration, however, as it told shareholders that it was expecting it to block at least one of its deals — and it’s likely the 7500 Paveway bombs worth $500 million — to Saudi Arabia.

So the company is taking the deal off the books, said CEO Greg Hayes, in a quarterly earnings call on Tuesday.  “With the change in administration, it becomes less likely that we’re going to be able to get a license for this. And so we appropriately decided that we could no longer support the booking of that contract.”

But buck up, said Hayes, business is still booming. “Look…peace is not going to break out in the Middle East anytime soon,” Hayes said. “I think it remains an area where we’ll continue to see solid growth.”

As long as the U.S. government enables the flood of American weaponry, training, and security assurances into the region, Washington will not be able to extricate from the Middle East and let these Gulf States take on their own security, which should be the ultimate goal. Nor will these despotic regimes have to pay for their chronic human rights abuses and repression. These deals are in a sense, rewards.

“The weapons we sold to Saudi Arabia and UAE have been used to kill schoolchildren, transferred to extremist militias, and fueled a dangerous arms race in the Middle East,” tweeted Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, who was part of a bipartisan effort last year that included Republican Sen. Rand Paul to quash the UAE deal. “This is the right move. The time is now to reset our relationships with Gulf allies.”

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