Correspondent in New York
Hunt them F-35 are the jewel in the crown of the Army of EE.UU., a powerful, advanced weapon, unmatched in the airspace. Also a diplomatic weapon, with which the first world power anoints its most trusted partners. And that it serves to reward or punish his allies. Among the latter, Turkey, which was left without the thirty ships it had agreed with the US – and a total of 120 in the long term – for the contract that Recep Tayyp Erdogan signed with Russia to access its S400 anti-aircraft missiles.
With United Arab Emirates (WATER) the first thing happened. The Government of Donald Trump celebrated the participation of the Gulf country in the so-called Abrahamic agreements – peace processes between Israel and several Arab countries
, like the UAE, Bahrain or Morocco – with a gift in the form of a multimillion-dollar military contract: the purchase of fifty F-35 fighters, and 18 armed MQ-9B drones, a 23,000 million dollar operation.
The contract was signed in November of last year, in Trump’s final weeks as president. The agreement initialed a growing US rapprochement towards the Gulf country, at a time when the relationship with its great ally in the region, Saudi Arabia, was clouded by the abuses in the Yemen war or the death of dissident Jamaal Khashoggi (according to US intelligence, his assassination at the hands of a Saudi commando in Istanbul was approved by the crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman).
Joe Biden, who arrived at the White House a few weeks after the agreement was reached, had the power to sign or cancel it. But, surprisingly, the contract has been suspended by decision of the other contracting party, UAE. And behind the debacle is the great economic, geostrategic and military competitor of the United States: China.
In the middle of this month, the UAE Air Force sent a letter to the Pentagon in which they withdrew their letter of acceptance of the contract, which put the purchase of the fighters on hold, and the income of 23,000 million dollars and freeze the negotiations indefinitely.
“The UAE has informed the US of the suspension of the negotiations for the acquisition of the F-35s,” explained a senior Emirati official to CNN. “The revaluation was due to technical requirements, restrictions on sovereign operations and cost-benefit analysis.”
The contracts for the sale and use of the F-35s are full of limitations and restrictions for the recipient countries. The company that produces them, the American Lockheed Martin, controls the maintenance of the ships and monitors their use. The fighters are within a network connected and controlled from the US remotely and the sales contracts have conditions, from the prohibition of use to attack US allies or their deployment in combat operations that Washington consider that they violate human rights.
From the vaccine to the technological presence
Added to these restrictions is something that the Emirati authorities did not mention in their decision: China and its growing presence in the Gulf country. The Asian giant is the UAE’s first commercial partner, both countries cooperated for vaccination with the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine, and, above all, it has a growing technological presence in the country, something that infuriates Washington.
In 2019, the UAE signed a 5G technology cooperation agreement with China and in May of this year, it reached another with Huawei, the Chinese technology giant that competes around the world with the deployment of this type of networks and that the US has. considers a direct threat.
Shortly after the announcement of that agreement with Huawei, the Biden Administration demanded that the UAE dismantle the presence of the Chinese company in its networks before the F-35s were shipped, something that it hopes for 2026 or 2027.
Added to this is yet another reason for friction: pressure for the UAE to close a Chinese facility within the commercial port of Khalifa, near Abu Dabi, operated by China. The US authorities considered it a secret military installation and demanded that the works stop, something that the Emiratis eventually concede. “The UAE has the position that these facilities can in no way be considered military,” Anwar Gargash, the Gulf country’s diplomatic adviser, told a conference in Washington a few days ago. “But it was a concern for the US and we decided to consider that concern and stop work at those facilities.”
Gargash described the situation in which the Gulf country finds itself, amid the tensions between China and the US “What worries us is the fine line that separates strong competition between the two countries from a new Cold War.” , He said.
The Pentagon recognized the multitude of prisms that affect the sale of fighters. “The US alliance with the UAE is more strategic and complex than any arms sale,” said its spokesman, John Kirby, after the suspension of the contract was known. He added that these agreements always have conditions and are not exclusive to the Gulf country: “These requirements for the buyer and protection of US military equipment are universal, non-negotiable and not specific to the UAE.”
The contract could still be revived and that is the US intention. But the UAE, an ally of Washington in a key region, has had to choose between the technological cooperation with China and a military agreement with the US and, for the moment, it favors the former. The problem for the US is that more and more countries are taking that same path.