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Biden halts US sales of F-35s to UAE, smart bombs to Saudi Arabia

Two F-35 Lightning II fighter jets (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Ben Mota)
January 28, 2021

President Joe Biden’s administration ordered a halt and review on U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on Wednesday, including sales of precision-guided munitions for Saudi Arabia and F-35 fighter jets for the UAE.

The Wall Street Journal reported the pause on weapons sales to the two Arab countries affected up to 50 F-35A fighter jets and approximately 3,000 precision-guided bombs. The halt is part of the Biden administration’s plan to review billions of dollars of weapons sales approved by President Donald Trump in the final weeks of his presidential term.

The sale of F-35 fighter jets to the UAE was proposed as the UAE signed an agreement with Israel, known as the Abraham Accords, to normalize diplomatic relations.

In December, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DCSA), the Pentagon office that oversees foreign arms sales, said a sale of F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters could proceed. Last week the UAE signed a deal for up to 50 F-35A fighters jets valued at $10.4 billion. The F-35 sale is part of a larger $23.4 billion weapons package that also includes 18 MQ-9B SkyGuardian drones valued at $2.97 billion, and various other munitions valued at about $10 billion.

Weapons sales to Saudi Arabia included the sale of some 3,000 precision-guided GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb I‘s (SDB I) worth about $290 million. The arms sale was approved by the DCSA at the end of December, after a same-day notification to Congress.

Congress has opposed U.S. weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, amid a Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. In 2019 Congress passed legislation to bar U.S. weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, but Trump vetoed the measure and there were not enough votes in Congress to override his veto.

Officials who spoke with the Wall Street Journal said reviews like the one ordered by Biden are not uncommon from one administration to another and many of the sales are likely to ultimately go forward.

Responding to the Biden administration’s halt and review of the arms sales, the UAE’s Embassy in the U.S., quoting Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba, tweeted, “As in previous transitions, the UAE anticipated a review of current policies by the new administration. Specifically, the F-35 package is much more then selling military hardware to a partner. Like the US, it allows the UAE to maintain a strong deterrent to aggression. In parallel with new dialogue and security cooperation, it helps to reassure regional partners.”

“It also enables the UAE to take on more of the regional burden for collective security, freeing US assets for other global challenges, a long-time bipartisan US priority,” the UAE statement continued.

The incoming Biden administration has consistently vowed to review the Trump-era arms sales. Biden’s campaign website said he “will end our support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen.”

At his confirmation hearing last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated Biden’s campaign promise and said Biden “has made clear that we will end our support for the military campaign led by Saudi Arabia in Yemen, and I think we will work on that in very short order.”

The Saudi Arabian Embassy in the U.S. has yet to respond to the Biden administration’s review plans.