The US Senate on Wednesday rejected along party lines a resolution disapproving of the sale of F-35 stealth warplanes to the United Arab Emirates by a vote of 49-47, and the sale of armed drones to the UAE by a vote of 50-46. The sale of both items will go through, although the actual delivery of the items in question may take as long as 7 to 8 years. The same resolutions will be submitted to the House, where they are expected to pass without difficulty, but this won’t affect the sale.
The sale also includes a package of air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ken), a sworn isolationist, was against the sale, and asked, “Can a lasting peace be purchased with more weapons?” He was referring to the fact that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo formally authorized the sale—pending for several years—after the signing of the Abraham Accords which normalized relations between the UAE and Israel.
The Trump administration argued that the UAE must have the Lockheed Martin F-35s to boost its defense against its next-door neighbor Iran. The sale will make the UAE the second country operating the fifth-generation jet fighter, the first one being Israel, while the F-35s have recently been denied to Turkey, which is, at least on paper, a member of NATO. Israel, meanwhile, has had its eyes on the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, another fifth-generation warplane that knocks the socks of any military expert that views its performance.
But the fact that the $23 billion arms sale has pushed its way through the Senate does not necessarily mean it has been guaranteed, since the incoming Biden administration may not be as enthusiastic to continue one of President Trump’s most admired achievements in the Middle East. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Con), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, issued a statement after Wednesday’s vote urging President-elect Joe Biden’s administration “to take a closer look at each of these sales before any transfers are completed.”
That could mean four years of closer looking.
Murphy was critical of the UAE’s record on Yemen and Libya and pointed to its “complicated” relationships with China and Russia, which he thinks should disqualify the deal. Murphy, said during the Senate debate: “I’m not here to say that we shouldn’t be in the security business with UAE,” but “without resolving those issues, is this the moment to be selling for the first time ever F-35s, armed drones into the heart of the Middle East?”
Not if the new administration is committed to reviving the nuclear deal with Iran, which would view killing the sale of state-of-the-art military technology to its neighbor as a US gesture of goodwill.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, complained that Secretary Pompeo never responded to a list of questions the senators had sent him and then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper about the sale. Those questions could easily be answered by Biden’s cabinet secretaries, which could justify a new vote by a Senate that no longer has the Republican president on its back.