Dubai Air Present focuses on drone and F-35 fighter jet deal

A pair of MQ-9 Reaper from the 46th Expeditionary Attack Squadron are parked on the airline of Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait on June 9, 2020.

Chief Airman Isaiah J. Soliz | US Air Force

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Cutting-edge technology and geopolitics will be featured in the military deals at this year’s Dubai Air Show. And some arms sales – or lack thereof – are critical sticking points for both the US and its Gulf allies, particularly the United Arab Emirates.

Upgrading the fighter jet fleet and new technologies to combat UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems) are likely to be major topics at the industry show, especially given the increase in drone strikes in the region in recent years.

But many eyes will be on whether previous agreements by the Trump administration to sell certain U.S. weapons systems to the UAE will actually materialize – agreements that have stalled since the Biden administration came to power.

The sales in question are the coveted Lockheed Martin F-35 II joint strike fighter jet and the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper drone which, when completed, will be the first sale of the F-35 and the in US-made armed drones to any Arab country.

“The UAE has had a tremendous need for fighter jets headed for an F-35 purchase for quite some time, but, you know, terrible complications,” Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis for the Teal Group, told CNBC show the air.

The deal, signed on January 20, Donald Trump’s last day in office, included a whopping $ 23 billion sale to the UAE, the majority of which consisted of 50 F-35 jets and at least 18 armed drones.

Previously, US export regulations prevented Washington from selling deadly drones to its Arab allies. And an F-35 sale to the Gulf Desert sheikdom was a non-runner at first, as the US was legally required to reserve its most advanced arms sales for Israel in order to maintain Israel’s “qualitative military lead” in the Middle East.

But all that changed after Israel and the United Arab Emirates signed the Abraham Accords in August 2020, which normalized relations and paved the way for cooperation and trade in almost all sectors. And export restrictions on armed drones were relaxed by the Trump administration in July 2020 to allow the sale of certain drones – including the deadly Reaper – to friendly Arab states.

Lose technology place to China?

What has spurred this change? Geopolitics and competition, say defense experts.

Washington was “trying to break into the pragmatic reality of the current global environment for unmanned systems,” said Charles Forrester, senior defense analyst at IHS Jane’s.

He highlighted a point that many American industry leaders have warned about: the loss of market share to China, which is selling its own armed drones to Arab states, including the United Arab Emirates.

“The Trump administration has … realized that it would lose power, influence and technological space to China if it did not adjust its policies,” Forrester said.

“Drones, drones, drones”

When asked which segment of the aerospace industry China is attracting customers in the Gulf the most, Aboulafia of the Teal Group said, “Oh, undoubtedly drones. Absolutely. Drones, drones, drones. And you know, there is no such thing as a passive platform for data. So that’s a real problem. “

Participants walk past a China-made Wing Loong drone on display in the United Arab Emirates during the Dubai Airshow on November 14, 2017.

KARIM SAHIB | AFP | Getty Images

The UAE and some of its neighbors have purchased China-made Wing Loong armed drones, but the purchases bring their own challenges. Aside from some performance issues, Chinese technology cannot be integrated with the UAE’s command and control systems as these were developed by American companies.

“They don’t have interoperability. That’s very important,” Forrester said. “But the UAE was still using it anyway. They were still able to use it enough because they didn’t have the option to do anything else.”

Biden’s back and forth

Biden announced a review of the massive arms deal with the UAE early in his presidency and later said in April that the sale could continue. But advances were put on hold again shortly thereafter, ostensibly over US concerns over growing UAE-China ties.

The Biden government has pressured the United Arab Emirates to remove China’s Huawei Technologies from its telecommunications network and abandon its other Chinese weapons technology, industry experts say because of the security and espionage risk Washington believes they represent American technology in the country. As early as 2020, a Pentagon report said that China “is very likely already considering and planning additional military logistics facilities abroad”, including in the United Arab Emirates.

The Emirati government, along with its Ambassador to the US, Yousef al-Otaiba, rejected the concerns, saying in a statement earlier this year: “The United Arab Emirates has a long and consistent track record of protecting US military technology, both in coalitions in which we served alongside the US military and in the United Arab Emirates, where a wide range of sensitive US military resources have been deployed for many years. ”

The Chinese Foreign Ministry did not respond to a CNBC request for comment.

Negotiations are reportedly going back and forth over how the deal should go further. The current deal calls for the F-35 jets to be delivered to the UAE in 2027; a stronger Chinese presence in the UAE could delay this indefinitely.

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