The Biden administration is reviewing some weapons sales to Gulf Arab states approved by the Trump administration, including tens of billions of dollars of advanced fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates and precision munitions to Saudi Arabia.
A State Department official speaking on background said Wednesday that the administration was temporarily pausing some of the arms sales and transfers, calling the move a routine action typical of presidential transitions.
But it drew unusual attention because the arms deals with the Gulf Arab nations, approved in the last months of the Trump administration, were the subject of intense political debate even before the review. Some Democrats expressed hope Wednesday that the sales would be canceled, even as the administration downplayed the review.
Democrats in Congress have strongly opposed the sales out of disgust over the Saudi and Emirati role in Yemen’s grueling civil war, which has inflicted vast civilian suffering, but they failed to attract enough Republican support to block the deals in Congress in December. Many Democrats began pressuring President Joe Biden even before his inauguration to halt the sales.
The deals in question include the $23-billion sale to the Emirates of 50 F-35 fighters and 18 Reaper drones, which President Donald Trump approved in the fall as an inducement for the Emirates to normalize diplomatic relations with Israel as part of the “Abraham Accords,” one of Trump’s proudest achievements.
In late December, the State Department approved the sale of $478-million in precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia, over the strong objections of Democrats, who said the bombs were sure to wind up killing innocent civilians in Yemen. Trump administration officials called that deal essential to supporting the Saudis in their fight against the Iranian-backed Houthis. Officials did not provide full details of all the agreements under review, but Trump approved the sale of billions of dollars of arms to the Saudis.
A senior administration official said that the review does not include a freeze on sales under the Emirati deal. A congressional official familiar with the review said that the Saudi arms shipments would be paused during the review.
The news comes as many Democrats in Congress call for a reassessment of the United States’ relationship with the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia. Trump and Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser, worked in virtual lockstep with the Saudis and Emiratis. But Democrats say the war in Yemen and human rights issues, including the killing of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018, demand a more skeptical relationship.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, briefing journalists at the State Department on his first full day on the job, said the review was customary.
“When it comes to arms sales, it is typical at the start of an administration to review any pending sales to make sure that those that are being considered is something that advances our strategic objectives and advances our foreign policy,” Blinken said.
In a statement posted on Twitter by his embassy, the Emirati ambassador to Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba, also stressed the routine nature of the review.
“As in previous transitions, the UAE anticipated a review of current policies by the new administration,” Otaiba said.
But Otaiba also made a more detailed case for the deal — arguing, among other points, that it “enables the UAE to take on more of the regional burden for collective security, freeing US assets for other global challenges, a longtime bipartisan US priority.”
Still, some congressional Democrats said Wednesday that the arms deals should — or even most likely would — be canceled.
“This marks the end of US ambivalence in the face of unconscionable human suffering in Yemen,” Rep. Ro Khanna of California, a member of the Armed Services Committee and an outspoken critic of arms sales to the Gulf States, said on Twitter. “No longer will we placate brutal dictators for political or personal gain. Outstanding news from Biden.”
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., agreed.
“The weapons we sold to Saudi Arabia and UAE have been used to kill schoolchildren, transferred to extremist militias, and fueled a dangerous arms race in the Middle East. This is the right move,” he wrote on Twitter. “The time is now to reset our relationships with Gulf allies.”
The Emirates for years joined with Saudi Arabia to fight the Houthis in Yemen but withdrew its forces in late 2019.
Dennis Ross, who managed Middle East affairs for four presidents, said the review was unsurprising and typical of an incoming administration. But he said the Biden administration was eager to show “that it takes sales of advanced weapons seriously and wants to consider the implications of such sales, especially in a place like the Middle East.”
Ross predicted that the administration would ultimately greenlight the deal with the Emirates, in part because Biden supported the diplomatic agreement with Israel on which the planes were conditioned.
On Wednesday, Blinken called the Abraham Accords “a very positive development” and said the Biden administration hoped to build on them. But he said he wanted to review the deals.
“We’re also trying to make sure that we have a full understanding of any commitments that may have been made in securing those agreements,” Blinken said. “And that is something we are looking at right now.”
One bipartisan concern about the sale of the F-35, America’s most advanced fighter jet, has been that it could threaten Israel’s military superiority in the Middle East. Under federal law, the United States must ensure that Israel maintains a “qualitative military edge” over its neighbors. Trump administration officials insisted that the high-tech stealth planes did not interfere with that objective but did not publicly provide details backing up their assertion.
“The pause on the precision munitions for the Saudis may be more of a statement,” Ross added. “The pause could be tied to declarations that were made during the campaign about no longer militarily supporting the Saudis in their campaign in Yemen.”
Blinken also said last week during his Senate confirmation hearing that the United States would end its yearslong support for the Saudi campaign in Yemen.
But Ross noted that the State Department had condemned a weekend missile or drone attack against Riyadh presumed to have been launched by Yemen’s Houthi rebels, whose 2015 takeover of the Yemeni capital drew Saudi Arabia and the Emirates into that country’s civil war.
The statement said the United States would “help our partner Saudi Arabia defend against attacks on its territory and hold those who attempt to undermine stability to account.”
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