UAE suspension of weapons purchase meant to send a message to Washington
On Tuesday the United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced that it is freezing discussions with the U.S. on its long-awaited purchase of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighter jets, Reaper drones and other advanced weaponry — equipment it has long pursued as a top military priority. The suspension has nothing to do with the announcement earlier this month that the UAE also is buying 80 French-made Rafale jets for over $19 billion, as some analysts propose. It also has little to do with increasing American complaints about the UAE’s growing commercial ties with China.
It has everything to do with the UAE signaling to the United States that it has options.
And the UAE is not alone.
With the current U.S. administration’s well-known prioritization of China and apparent lack of interest in the region except for its pursuit of an Iran nuclear agreement, serious leaders in the Gulf countries are hedging their bets. At bottom, they are pursuing their national interests by ensuring they keep their options open.
To be clear, none of our allies in the Gulf — least of all the UAE — is signaling that it sees its security alliance with the U.S. as any less valuable than we do. But that is precisely the point. The Biden administration has reduced regional military commitments by withdrawing hundreds of troops, aircraft, and desperately needed anti-missile batteries from key allies, including Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, and Kuwait in an unambiguous signal that these countries must now be more responsible for their own security. And while enabling the region to do more for themselves is among our security goals, when combined with the current administration’s disorganized and dangerous exit from Afghanistan, its announced departure of combat troops from Iraq, the White House’s obsession with negotiating with Iran while excluding regional players, and its ambivalence toward just about everything else, one could easily conclude that, at best, the U.S. takes its Gulf partners for granted.
Moreover, none of the Gulf countries wants to get caught between a weak U.S. and an emboldened Iran, or play helpless bystander as the U.S., Russia and China compete within the region as part of ongoing global shifts in political, economic, and military power.
The UAE, Qatar, and to some extent Saudi Arabia, have made a key policy determination: better to reduce the number of their adversaries willing to attack territory, assets, or critical navigation routes through deepening bilateral political and economic ties — while keeping your defense options open without sacrificing capability or key alliances — than to get caught flat-footed and without needed support.
The emerging regional rapprochement was foreshadowed by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) reconciliation in January. Only one day after the GCC states signed a “solidarity and stability” agreement that began lifting the boycott of Qatar, Qatari officials began pushing for a détente between Gulf states and Tehran. Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani publicly urged Gulf nations to enter into a dialogue with Iran and offered to broker negotiations. In May, he once again pushed for Gulf states and Tehran to agree on a format to address concerns and ease regional tensions. While it is unclear what role Qatar has played — if any — in the nascent mending of relations, it certainly hasn’t hurt.
As for Saudi Arabia, in September, representatives from Tehran and Riyadh met in Baghdad — the first such meeting since Iran’s new hardline president was sworn into office. Earlier the same month, the Iranian Foreign Minister and unidentified Saudi officials reportedly met on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Following those meetings, Saudi King Salman publicly offered his support for direct discussions between Tehran and Riyadh during his speech at the UN General Assembly. While apparently there has been little progress from the Saudi-Iran talks, reports indicate that Moscow has offered to broker an agreement between the two countries under the collective security concept for the Persian Gulf region that it has been trying to promote since the 1990s.
While talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran may have resulted in little-to-no progress, the efforts between Tehran and Abu Dhabi appear more encouraging. On Dec. 6, UAE National Security Advisor Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan met with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran. After the meeting, Raisi reportedly said that he welcomed “improved ties with the Emirates” and announced that Sheikh Tahnoon had invited him to the UAE. Sheikh Tahnoon leading the delegation was expected, as he has already been at the forefront of UAE overtures to mend ties with others, including Turkey. The Sheikh has long led UAE offers of commercial investment and economic ties as tools of its diplomacy.
The Tahnoon meeting came shortly after senior Emirati official Anwar Gargash announced on Nov. 30 that the UAE would soon be sending a delegation to Iran to improve ties after meetings that included discussions with Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani.
With several regional players, including the UAE, also examining their next steps in Syria while actively engaging France, China, Russia, Turkey, U.K., Israel, and others on advanced tech purchases, shared investments and complimentary developmental efforts in Africa and beyond, the U.S. is on notice that our allies, indeed, have options.
Emily Milliken, Senior Vice President and Lead Analyst at Askari Associates, LLC, contributed.
Mary Beth Long is former assistant secretary for international security affairs at the U.S. Department of Defense and chair of NATO’s High Level Group, as well as a former CIA case officer. She is co-founder of Global Alliance Advisors LLC. Follow her on Twitter @LongDefense.