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Trump on course to complete UAE arms deal after Senate fails to block him

A F-35 Lightning II flown by Air Force Capt. Kristin “BEO” Wolfe performs during this year’s Fort Lauderdale Air Show in Florida. (Capt. Kip Sumner/U.S. Air Force/Reuters)

The Trump administration remains on course to complete a controversial $23 billion arms sale to the United Arab Emirates after bipartisan Senate efforts to block the deal failed to gain enough support to clear a critical procedural hurdle Wednesday.

A majority of senators voted against two motions to block the sale of F-35 fighter jets, Reaper drones and other military equipment, stymying the effort to stop — or at least slow — the sale of cutting-edge weaponry to a country with which the United States has an exceptionally tense alliance.

Senators backing the legislation have raised alarms about the speed with which the Trump administration has tried to complete the sale, which was announced in the wake of the Emiratis signing a peace deal with Israel. They have also warned that the administration’s end-run around Congress sets a dangerous precedent of cutting lawmakers out of national security deliberations.

“Why the rush?” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking Democrat Robert Menendez (N.J.), who sponsored the resolutions along with panel senators Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.). “Are they trying to lock in the sale before President-elect Biden is inaugurated, regardless of the possible cost to U.S. and Israeli national security?”

Peace deal or arms race? Proposed sale of F-35 to UAE raises fears in Israel.

Advocates of the arms deal have argued that selling the attack aircraft and munitions to the Emirates will improve Israel’s regional security and is a necessary reward to Abu Dhabi for signing the peace deal.

“The UAE is worthy of this sale because it is strongly aligned with the United States in the Middle East,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) said Tuesday. “Voting down this sale would signal to our partners that even when they do everything we ask . . . the U.S. won’t have their backs.”

But the senators who tried to block the deal aren’t convinced that the UAE is yet a reliable enough ally to handle the United States’ most sensitive military equipment. They pointed out that the UAE has a troubling record when it comes to addressing the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, fomented for years by the Saudi-led bombing campaign there.

Citing evidence that the weapons sold to the UAE previously ended up in the hands of al-Qaeda-linked militias inside Yemen, they also questioned whether the UAE had proved itself capable of protecting some of the most sensitive American military technology. And they noted that the UAE’s defense relationships with Russia and China make the stakes of the UAE’s trustworthiness particularly steep.

“They are still a barrier to peace,” Murphy said of the UAE on Wednesday, questioning whether the United States “can be absolutely certain that the technology on board those fighter jets, those drones, are going to stay in the right hands.”

When the sale is completed, the UAE will become the first Arab country to acquire F-35s, setting a standard that other deep-pocketed buyers will probably seek to follow.

Emirati purchases of U.S. materiel have more than tripled annually under the Trump administration, to $3.5 billion authorized in fiscal year 2020, a number that will be dwarfed if the $23 billion F-35 sale goes through. But Saudi Arabia has for years been the most lucrative American market worldwide, purchasing a whopping $173 billion worth of weapons since 1950 — quadruple the total purchased by Israel, its closest competitor.

The Saudis have previously expressed interest in buying F-35s. But weapons sales to Riyadh have recently taken a nosedive, falling from $15 billion in fiscal 2019 to just $1.2 billion in fiscal 2020, in the face of revelations about Saudi culpability in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and increased scrutiny of the devastation in Yemen.

Last year, the Senate and House voted to block several arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, but Trump vetoed the measures and lawmakers could not muster enough support for an override. During those votes, a handful of Republicans joined all Democrats in voting to block the arms deals; during Wednesday’s votes, two Democrats — Arizona Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly — joined all Republicans but Paul in voting to sustain them.

The latest attempt to protest Trump’s arms sales comes as Democrats begin to examine how a Biden administration will approach arms sales to the Middle East. Such concerns were punctuated by the president-elect’s decision this week to nominate Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III as his defense secretary. Austin sits on the board of Raytheon, a defense contracting giant that stands to profit from the latest UAE arms deals and produced the precision-guided munitions that were used to target civilians in Yemen.

Austin is expected to face questioning about his Raytheon ties when he testifies before the Senate and House, both of which must approve a waiver to clear the way for his confirmation. Last month, Reps. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) sent a letter to Biden, asking him not to appoint a defense secretary with ties to defense contractors.

But at least one of Congress’s key voices advocating against arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE has dismissed the notion that Austin’s Raytheon affiliation will be cause for concern.

“There have been past cases of high-profile people who have served in positions where they have extensive financial holdings, or extensive ties in industry,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) said in an interview. “The key to that is to have clear recusal and conflicts of interest disclosure standards, and to have the high ethical standards.”

Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.