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Biden administration places hold on weapons sales to UAE, Saudi Arabia

Secretary of State Antony Blinken conducts a news briefing on Wednesday.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken conducts a news briefing on Wednesday. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
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The State Department has ordered a hold on some U.S. arms sales and transfers, including controversial approvals during the final days of the Trump administration of stealth F-35 fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates and precision-guided missiles to Saudi Arabia.

A department statement called the pause “a routine action” that would allow a review to ensure “transparency and good government,” as well as meeting the Biden administration’s strategic objectives.

The Persian Gulf transactions, along with other last-minute Trump administration approvals of weapons transfers to Egypt and the Philippines, had drawn the attention of lawmakers who objected to earlier arms transfers and what they saw as efforts to circumvent congressional objections.

Letters finalizing the $23 billion UAE sale, including 50 of the new aircraft, were signed Jan. 19, one day before the inauguration of President Biden. The deal was made informally last summer when the UAE agreed to normalize relations with Israel as part of the Abraham Accords, which former president Donald Trump considers one of his major foreign policy successes and a key part of efforts to unify the region against Iran.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in his first full day on the job, told reporters on Wednesday that the Biden administration supports the accords and hopes to build on them. But, he said, “we’re also trying to make sure we have a full understanding of any commitments that may have been made in securing those agreements.”

In addition to the UAE sale, Trump secured Sudan’s participation in the normalization agreement with Israel by removing it from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Morocco, another signatory, agreed after Trump recognized its sovereignty over the long-disputed Western Sahara. Bahrain, a close ally of Saudi Arabia, also signed on, although the previous administration’s hopes of persuading the Saudis to do the same were not realized.

Israel, which under U.S. law is guaranteed weapons superiority in the region, agreed to the sale, which would make the UAE the only Arab state with the sophisticated aircraft.

Biden’s challenges on foreign policy

A statement on Twitter by Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to Washington, took a mild tone in responding to the hold, which was first reported by Bloomberg News. “The UAE anticipated a review of current policies by the new administration,” said Otaiba, who called the F-35 package “much more than selling military hardware to a partner.”

Not only will it ensure interoperability with a key regional defense ally, he said, “it also enables the UAE to take on more of the regional burden for collective security, freeing U.S. assets for other global challenges, a longtime U.S. priority.”

“With the same equipment and training,” Otaiba said, “U.S. and UAE forces are more effective together when and where it matters.” The $23 billion package also includes Reaper drones and other military equipment.

Although the UAE sale is larger, the Saudi deal is more controversial. It includes nearly $500 million in precision bombs, which, under the agreement, would be produced in Saudi Arabia.

Notification of the sale was provided to Congress in late December, giving lawmakers 30 days to pass a resolution of disapproval. The deadline was Jan. 21.

Saudi Arabia, with which the Trump administration forged close ties, has been the subject of bipartisan criticism over its war in neighboring Yemen, where Saudi jets, using U.S. precision munitions, have repeatedly bombed civilian targets as the kingdom has sought to weaken Iranian-linked Houthi rebels there. The UAE is part of a Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen.

Scrutiny of the longtime U.S. ally intensified after Saudi agents carried out a brutal 2018 operation against journalist and Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed and dismembered in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. U.S. intelligence concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the killing. The Saudi arrest of political dissidents has also drawn widespread criticism.

In 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made an unusual emergency declaration to bypass congressional opposition to a larger arms sale to the Saudis.

During his election campaign, Biden said repeatedly that he intended to review the U.S. security arrangement with Saudi Arabia and would ban all U.S. assistance and weapons sales used to prosecute the Yemen war.

At his first-day news conference, Blinken said that the situation in Yemen was among his highest early priorities, including particular focus on a last-minute Trump designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organization.

While the Houthis have committed “significant acts of aggression” in their takeover of much of Yemen, including attacks against Saudi Arabia and human rights abuses, “at the same time, we’ve seen a campaign led by Saudi Arabia that has also contributed to what is by many estimates the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today,” he said.

The United Nations has estimated that 24 million Yemenis, or 80 percent of the population, are dependent on outside humanitarian aid that could be curtailed under designation-imposed sanctions.