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Don't stop with Saudis — Biden must cut off weapons to UAE, too

The pending $23 billion deal to the Emirates threaten to fuel conflict in Yemen and Libya and reward bad behavior.

Analysis | Middle East

President Biden took the occasion of his first foreign policy speech on February 4 to make a pledge to end “all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.” The administration has since indicated that it will put an indefinite pause on two bomb sales to Saudi Arabia that the Trump administration announced in late December. 

The administration’s new policy should include a review of all U.S. sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the nations that are primarily responsible for the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen. It is important that sales to the UAE receive the same scrutiny given to Saudi arms offers. 

In late November last year, the Trump administration notified Congress of offers of F-35 combat aircraft, MQ-9 armed drones, and bombs and missiles to the UAE worth a total of over $23 billion — the largest U.S. arms package ever offered to the Emirates. Senate votes to block the sales failed by a small margin, with nearly every Democratic Senator voting for two separate resolutions to stop aspects of the package from going forward.

These weapons deals with the UAE threaten to increase violence and fuel conflict at a time when the Biden administration should prioritize ending the wars in the greater Middle East. Not only should the Biden administration rescind these offers, but it should also reconsider the nature of the U.S.-UAE alliance to align it with emerging U.S. security objectives in the Middle East and North Africa.

This is no time to be offering a flood of new weaponry to the Emirates, given its role in fueling the wars in Yemen and Libya, its diversion of past U.S.-supplied arms to extremist groups, and its record of internal repression. The UAE, along with the militias it arms and trains, has also engaged in torture and detention-related abuses in Yemen, and its arms transfers and drone strikes on behalf of Gen. Khalifa Haftar’s forces in Libya are a blatant violation of a United Nations arms embargo on that nation.

The $23 billion package is far from the first major arms offer to the UAE. Over the past decade, the United States has pushed a total of $59 billion in arms sales to the Emirati regime, for everything from attack helicopters and armored vehicles to tens of thousands of precision-guided bombs, many of which have been used in the brutal Saudi/UAE intervention in Yemen that has resulted in over 100,000 deaths and pushed millions of Yemenis to the brink of starvation.

The United States is far and away the largest arms supplier to the UAE, accounting for over two thirds of its arms imports between 2015 to 2019, the most recent period for which full statistics are available. In addition, the majority of the regime’s current Air Force consists of U.S.-supplied F-16 combat aircraft. A cutoff of arms exports, spare parts and maintenance support would have a major impact on the UAE’s war machine and would provide substantial leverage in changing its reckless conduct in the greater Middle East.

As noted above, the UAE is responsible for large numbers of civilian deaths as a result of its central role in the war in Yemen, where it has deployed ground forces and taken part in the coalition’s aerial campaign and naval blockade. The UAE has also diverted U.S.-supplied weaponry to extremist groups in Yemen, including militias allied with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). In February 2020, the UAE announced that it had pulled back most of its troops in Yemen, but it continues to arm, train and back militias involved in the war, which total 90,000 members in all. It also continues to be implicated in abuses ranging from indiscriminate artillery shelling to torture to recruitment of child soldiers. The UAE is still a major player in Yemen, despite its claims to the contrary, and it should be held accountable for its role there.

The UAE has also been among the most influential foreign players in the civil war in Libya, supplying weapons to the opposition forces of Gen. Khalifa Haftar and carrying out air and drone strikes in support of his military campaigns, in blatant violation of a UN embargo and U.S. support for the internationally-recognized government in Libya.  Haftar’s forces have engaged in extensive human rights abuses in the war, including killing scores of civilians.

The UAE also has a record of severe human rights abuses at home. As Human Rights Watch has noted: “UAE residents who have spoken about human rights issues are at serious risk of arbitrary detention, imprisonment, and torture. Many are serving long prison terms or have left the country under pressure.”

Over 80 progressive organizations and individuals, led by Win Without War, MADRE, Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation, Yemen Alliance Committee, the Project on Middle East Democracy and the Center for International Policy have called on the Biden administration to permanently cancel dozens of arms deals with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, worth tens of billions of dollars, even as it presses for accountability for violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) committed in Yemen. Their appeal urges an immediate ceasefire and an inclusive peace process that includes all sectors of Yemeni society, not just the armed parties prosecuting the war.

Reversing all of Trump’s arms sales to the UAE and Saudi Arabia would be an excellent first step towards fulfilling President Biden’s desire to end the war in Yemen, as well as a  step towards reorienting U.S. policy in the broader Middle East towards promoting peace and reconciliation rather than war and confrontation.

Prime Minister of UAE and the Ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum (Kertu/Shutterstock)
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