F-35 Deal: UAE Striking Balance between the US and China?

On 14 December 2021, multiple media outlets reported that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is threatening to pull out of a $23.7 billion arms deal, of 50 F-35A Joint Strike Fighters, 18 MQ-9B Reaper drones and the munitions for both, with the United States (US). It is part of a recent spike in tensions between the UAE and the US, mainly due to China’s increasing influence in the Gulf country, with Huawei’s 5G network and a secretive facility at Khalifa port being the primary US concerns. This development came less than two weeks after the UAE signed a $19 billion deal with France’s Dassault Aviation and Airbus Helicopters for 80 Rafales fighters and 12 H225M Caracals helicopters.

There can be multiple reasons for purchasing the Rafales and threatening to quit the F-35 deal, but it is widely believed that it is due to UAE’s recently increasing ties with China. The UAE has already awarded the contracts to establish 5G network infrastructure to Huawei, something the US tried to stop from happening. The Biden administration had previously stated that the US would be unable to sell F-35s to UAE if they would not remove the systems for Huawei’s 5G network, which had been already installed and stop further installation by the time the US was to deliver the warplanes. There is also the case of what some refer to as a secretive facility at UAE’s Khalifa port. This facility showed up on satellite imagery, after which the US stepped in and informed the Emirates that the Chinese were building a facility leading to a stop in the construction. The construction was taking place inside a container terminal, built and operated by the Chinese Shipping Cooperation. A diplomatic advisor to the President of the UAE also stated that they did not believe that the Chinese were carrying out construction for any military purpose.

Besides, the UAE is China’s most important trade partner in the region and is also the market with the largest share of non-oil related trade with China (28%), in the Middle East. Due to this very trade relationship, the UAE is also poised to play a vital role in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). When the UAE joined the BRI, China was its second-largest trade partner.

Another interesting fact is that the announcement of this suspension came during the 42nd Summit of the Leaders of the Supreme Council of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. It is also remarkable that the UAE has recently changed its approach to Iran. UAE has shifted to diplomacy with an advisor to UAE’s President saying that the aim is to “try and avoid conflict at all costs”. The other GCC countries, including Saudi Arabia, are also pushing for better ties with Iran. This could also be a reason for the suspension, showing Iran that the UAE, for whom Iran was a major threat, would not pursue next-generation systems and keep a balance of power between the two countries.

When it had announced the suspension of the deal, the UAE embassy in the US cited sovereign operational restrictions, and cost-benefit analysis led to the re-assessment of the proposed arrangement.

As recently as the Dubai Air Show, which took place in November 2021, the deal for the F-35s was going forward. Rostec, Russia’s state-owned arms and technology export platform at the show, offered Emirati companies joint production of the recently launched Sukhoi SU-75. This was also the international debut for a mock-up of the aircraft. An executive from Rostec, when asked why they were offering this deal to the Emiratis, said that the Emiratis have been very keen regarding new technologies and that Russia does not apply political tags or conditions for cooperation with other states. With the option of joint production and the transfer of technology with it, the SU-75 could be a platform that the UAE could easily maintain, operate, and procure in larger numbers, at a lower price and with the possibility of having a cheaper operating cost. Thus, it would be cheaper in the long run, and any orders would mean work for workers in Emirati factories. It would also give a free hand to the UAE in the operational use of the aircraft as the Russians, unlike the Americans, are not known to have any end-user agreements or monitoring with whoever purchases defence articles from them.

The US maintains it is ready to go ahead with the sale if the UAE is still willing to purchase the aircraft. Sectary of State Blinken stated this much when he was asked about it during a visit to Malaysia. He also noted that the US wanted to keep Israel’s “military edge” in place while responding to what conditions the US had placed for sale. When it had announced the suspension of the deal, the UAE embassy in the US cited sovereign operational restrictions, and cost-benefit analysis led to the re-assessment of the proposed arrangement. The official from the embassy also said that the discussion for the F-35 deal may restart in the future, as the US is still the preferred supplier of advanced defence equipment and ammunition. Interestingly, there was no mention of the MQ-9 drones by the Emirati official; therefore, the sale of the drones and associated equipment and weapons may still be on the table. Compared to the F-35, the MQ-9 has a lesser risk of facing Chinese espionage as it (China) is already operating multiple types of similar indigenous drones, namely the CH series and Wing Loong series. This can mean that even if the UAE is unable to meet the requirements for the F-35 sale, they may be able to meet them for the MQ-9 sale, as they would be lower.

It could be said that with the purchase of the Rafaels from France, the UAE may not feel an urgent need to induct F-35s in the immediate future, as no other country in the region other than Israel is currently fielding any stealth or 5th generation aircraft. Or it may be that UAE does not want to damage its relationship with China and undertook this decision to strike a balance between the US and China, rather than choosing sides. This is evident from the fact that there is no report or mention of UAE removing the already in place and expanding 5G network sourced from Huawei. Thus, by ordering the stop of construction at the port and deciding not to get F-35s, it is trying to compromise between the US and China.

Syed Zulfiqar Ali

Syed Zulfiqar Ali has completed his Masters in Defence & Strategic Studies from Quaid-i-Azam University, and is currently serving as a Research Assistant at the Centre of Strategic and Contemporary Research.

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