The Biden administration’s recent announcement giving a green light to a massive $23 billion weapons sale to the United Arab Emirates makes a mockery of its commitment to put human rights at the forefront of its foreign policy. The Emirates’ disastrous roles in Yemen and Libya, along with its vicious human rights record at home, should disqualify it from acquiring advanced weapons.
The deal was negotiated under the Trump administration and came to light less than a week after Donald Trump announced the normalization of relations between Israel and the UAE, known as the Abraham Accords. While the public was regaled with Trump’s supposedly brilliant peace initiative, the secret clause that sweetened the deal was leaked: The U.S. would sell billions of dollars of weapons to the Gulf state — 50 F-35 fighter jets, 18 Reaper drones, and various missiles, bombs and munitions. The UAE and Israel have never been at war and had maintained unofficial ties for years, but the “peace accord” allowed the Trump administration to circumvent a policy that requires the United States to guarantee Israel's military superiority in the region. The administration also framed the sale as necessary for the UAE to counter the threat posed by Iran.
Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, ever the king of political drama, initially feigned outrage that another Middle East country besides Israel would possess the high-tech F-35s, but it was soon revealed that the Prime Minister had been in the know from the start and had approved the deal with his own caveat: Israel would get additional U.S. weapons to “balance” those going to the UAE.
Congressional opponents of the arms deal responded by introducing a bipartisan resolution of disapproval to block the sale. Surprisingly, hawkish Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, led the resolution with Senators Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Rand Paul (R-K.Y.). They cited concerns about the timing as a rushed end-run around Congress, the UAE’s troubling involvement in Yemen and Libya, and the UAE’s military relationships with Russia and China. Though their legislation was voted down, when Joe Biden came into office, the State Department put this sale, as well as a weapons deal Trump had negotiated with Saudi Arabia, on hold. Human rights groups were encouraged that the Biden review might lead to a quashing of the deal but, apparently, geopolitical pressures, the hawks in the administration, and pressure from the weapons lobby have won the day.
The companies that stand to gain hefty profits from this sale include Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, General Atomics and Northrop Grumman. Lockheed Martin will get $10.4 billion selling 50 of its F-35s. According to The New York Times, Raytheon, the biggest supplier of the bombs, lobbied the Trump administration for the deal. Trump’s Secretary of Defense Mark Esper was a lobbyist for Raytheon and Biden’s Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is a former Raytheon board member.
The UAE’s role in Yemen should have been enough to quash the deal. For the past six years, a U.S.-supported coalition led by Saudi Arabia has been waging a war in Yemen so brutal that according to David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Program, this war-torn nation is “hell on earth” where one Yemeni child dies every 75 seconds.
In 2017, Human Rights Watch and the Associated Press accused the UAE of operating secret prisons in Yemen where prisoners were subjected to horrific forms of torture. Former inmates describe cramped conditions covered in feces, being beaten, sexually assaulted, and trussed up on a “grill.” “We could hear the screams,” said a former detainee held for six months at the Rayan airport. “The entire place is gripped by fear. Almost everyone is sick, the rest are near death. Anyone who complains heads directly to the torture chamber,” said one former detainee.
In addition to its direct involvement, the UAE supported local proxies — around 90,000 fighters — providing them with direct training, capacity building, logistics assistance, and salaries. It also brought in mercenaries from as far away as Colombia, and weapons sold to the UAE ended up in the hands of al Qaeda-linked militias inside Yemen.
Complaints have been filed in courts in the UK, Turkey, and the U.S. alleging that UAE mercenaries in Yemen committed human rights abuses and war crimes. They also allege that the UAE joined the Saudis in enforcing a naval blockade that has kept fuel, food, and medicines from people in need, committing over 30 fighter jets to carry out airstrikes and naval ships to enforce the coalition’s blockade.
Anxious to get out of a losing war that has been so bad for its image, the Emirates held a ceremony on February 9, 2020, to mark the end of their involvement in the Yemen war, moving from a “military-first strategy to a peace-first strategy.” But humanitarian groups on the ground tell us that the UAE maintains a presence in Socotra, Mukallah, and a small presence in Aden. In addition, it offers financial and military support to a variety of armed groups and political movements that have had a destabilizing influence throughout the country, particularly in the South.
In Libya, the UAE has contributed to massive destruction with its support for General Khalifa Haftar in his unsuccessful fight against the internationally recognized government in Tripoli. The U.N. found the UAE to be violating the U.N. Security Council arms embargo on Libya by supplying combat equipment to Haftar’s militia, a group known for its human rights abuses. A 2020 U.S. Department of Defense report accused the UAE of funding and supporting Russian mercenaries in Libya and a January 2021 report by the Panel of Experts on Sudan found that the UAE has had “direct relations” with armed groups from Sudan’s Darfur region fighting in Libya.
A complaint filed in the U.S. District Court by the New York Center for Foreign Policy Affairs on behalf of victims of UAE actions in Libya contends that “widespread and publicly available evidence suggests that the weapons being sold will be used in direct contravention of world peace and U.S. security, as well as prior U.S. policy.”
Another strike against the sale is that it is fueling the Middle East arms race. While the UAE is set to become the first Arab state to acquire F-35s, it will not be the last. Qatar has already asked to purchase them and Saudi Arabia will likely follow. Israel is expecting additional arms beyond the $3.8 billion they already receive annually from the U.S. in military assistance. The sale is also increasing tension with Iran at a time when the Biden administration is trying to get Iran not only to wind back its nuclear program but also to reduce its ballistic missiles and military activities in the region. Surely stepping up arms sales to a key Iranian adversary will be a disincentive for it to demilitarize.
A final reason to oppose the deal is the UAE domestic situation. Prince Mohammed bin Zayed is a shrewd Middle East dictator who uses his country’s military and financial resources to thwart moves toward democracy and respect for human rights under the guise of fighting Islamic terrorism. The UAE restricts freedom of expression and silences dissent. Homosexuality and apostasy are capital offenses in this Muslim country, and legal punishments still on the books include stoning, amputation, crucifixion and flogging. According to Amnesty International, in 2020, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the UAE continued to detain dozens of prisoners of conscience, including prominent human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor. The government keeps opponents under arbitrary detention and a number of prisoners remain incarcerated despite having completed their sentences. On April 15, 2021, a cross-party coalition of European parliamentarians condemned the systematic crackdown on freedom of speech and expression, and called for the release of all prisoners of conscience, an end to torture and ill-treatment of these prisoners, and the protection of prisoners’ families from collective punishment.
Another group subject to all kinds of abuses are the millions of migrants who work in the Emirates under the kafala system, a type of visa sponsorship system that deprives workers of basic rights.
Faced with domestic crises that include a pandemic, a battered economy and exploding racial tensions, President Biden understands the need to focus his attention on domestic issues and wind down U.S. military entanglements from the past two decades. His recent announcement that U.S. troops will leave Afghanistan by September 11, 2021, reflects this. But a $23 billion weapons sale to the UAE is a disastrous move in the opposite direction. It puts the U.S. squarely on the side of a serial human rights abuser and inflames a region already awash with way too many weapons. A new round of legislation by Senators Menendez and Feinstein is being introduced to put checks on the sale of the F-35s, but it is the entire sale that must be questioned. If Biden refuses to put domestic and human rights concerns ahead of the profits of weapons manufacturers, then Congress must step in and pass legislation to stop him.
Ariel Gold is the national co-director and a senior Middle East policy analyst with CODEPINK, a women-led grassroots organization that supports peace and human rights initiatives and works to end US wars and militarism. Her work focuses on Palestinian rights, diplomacy with Iran, holding Saudi Arabia accountable for human rights abuses and the war in Yemen, and restricting U.S. weapons sales to end engagement in the Middle East. She has been published in Ms. Magazine, the Forward, Tikkun, Jacobin, and other outlets. She lives in Ithaca, NY. Follow her on Twitter @ArielElyseGold
Medea Benjamin is cofounder of CODEPINK for Peace, and author of several books, including Inside Iran: The Real History and Politics of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Follow her on Twitter @medeabenjamin
Abdullah al-Khawlani puts roses on the grave of his son, Waleed, who was killed in a Saudi-led air strike that killed dozens including children in Saada, Yemen, in September 4, 2018. REUTERS/Naif Rahma|
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.