President Trump’s precedent-breaking Middle East foreign policy faces a key test as the Senate is expected to vote this week on whether to block a $23 billion weapons sale to the United Arab Emirates including 50 cutting-edge F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets valued at over $10 billion, 20 Reaper drones worth nearly $3 billion, and thousands of munitions.
The sale is part of a wider effort by the Trump administration to bolster relations with Gulf countries who are willing to normalize relations with Israel, and to created a broad front to contain Iranian aggression.
As part of the Abraham Accords brokered by Mr. Trump this year in September, the UAE agreed to normalize full, diplomatic relations with Israel, the first Arab state to do so in decades. As a reward for easing Israel’s regional isolation, it also was announced the oil-rich Gulf Arab state would be eligible to purchase the cutting-edge U.S. military fighter and other arms — despite reservations from Israel and its supporters in Congress.
Heidi Grant, head of the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency, told reporters Friday that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter deal with the UAE could be signed and sealed before Mr. Trump leaves office Jan. 20, assuming Congress does not object.
“Absolutely it’s possible,” Ms. Grant told reporters Friday, while adding it would require quick action by UAE officials once the deal was greenlighted.
But the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, blasted a recent classified briefing by the administration on the proposed sale Thursday, calling the closed-door meeting was “totally unsatisfying.”
Sen. Chris Murphy, Connecticut Democrat and Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, are co-sponsoring several resolutions to block the sale that was approved by the State Department early last month.
“It’s ripe. It’s ready, it has privilege on the floor,” Mr. Menendez told reporters when asked about the timing of the resolutions seeing a vote. “We are gathering support for it.”
The resolutions require a simple majority to pass and would prevent the sale that the Trump administration is seeking to push through in his final weeks in office.
Mr. Paul last week pointed to the qualitative military boost the UAE would enjoy — potentially on par with Israel — if it obtained the advanced U.S.-made weapons. Israel has long sought to maintain a clear military superiority over its regional rivals, many of whom still refuse to recognize it.
“I think it’s a bad idea to give weapons that are our qualified military advantage over the rest of the world to countries who may or may not always be with us, that are autocracies or monarchies that don’t share our values,” he told reporters on Capitol Hill.
“I think it also leads to an arms race in the Middle East, which is a bad idea,” he added.
Mr. Murphy has also cited a potential looming arms race in the region in attempting to block what could be a historic sale to a Gulf nation.
“Fueling an arms race in the Middle East is just bad policy — Iran will respond with its own ramp-up, and every other Gulf nation will want similar weapons to keep up with the UAE,” he tweeted last week.
He also pointed to the UAE’s long standing relationship with U.S. adversaries including China and Russia. He said in the recent classified briefing, “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.”
The UAE’s ambassador to the U.S., Yousef Al Otaiba, blasted Mr. Murphy’s assertions and said last week that the sale is “different.”
“The UAE F-35 package is much more [than] selling military hardware. It is about advancing a more stable and secure Middle East,” Amb. Al Otaiba said. “It enables the UAE to take on more of the regional burden for collective security, freeing U.S. assets for other global challenges — a bipartisan U.S. priority.”
The Senate debate comes as Israel and the UAE are deepening ties on a number of fronts, symbolized by the first direct commercial flights between the two countries.
In order to take full effect, the joint resolutions would still need to pass the House, and survive a likely presidential veto. The Democrat-led House has previously approved resolutions blocking arms sales during President Trump’s tenure, most notably to Saudi Arabia in 2019.
Mr. Menendez hinted that it could be in the sale’s opponents’ best interest to wait until the incoming Biden administration.
“A new administration could decide that it might not be in the best interest of the national security of the United States,” he said. “No matter what happens, it’s not a done deal.”
• Lauren Toms can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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