The Trump administration has cleared the United Arab Emirates of wrongdoing and approved a possible sale of thousands of armored vehicles to the Gulf state, US government officials told CNN, despite evidence that the country made unauthorized transfers of American military hardware to armed groups in Yemen.
Yemen is embroiled in a civil war that has pitted a coalition backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE – both key US allies – against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, and the presence of American-made weaponry has only helped to fuel the fighting.
A CNN investigation in February last year revealed that both American allies had given US-made equipment to al Qaeda-linked fighters, hardline Salafi militias, and other fighting factions in Yemen, despite their agreements with Washington.
Under those agreements, the UAE and Saudi Arabia were legally required to receive permission to transfer equipment to other parties, but that permission was never obtained, the Department of Defense said at the time. Emirati officials denied they were in violation at the time, while the Saudis did not respond to requests for comment.
In the wake of CNN’s report, the US government launched its own investigation – which included dispatching teams to the UAE and Saudi Arabia – and put further deliveries of US hardware to the UAE on hold pending the results of that inquiry.
Two US officials with knowledge of the joint State Department and Pentagon investigation told CNN it took over a year to complete because of what one source described as delaying tactics by the UAE.
While the probe concluded earlier this year, its findings have not been made public. But multiple government officials on both sides of the aisle and within the administration told CNN that the UAE has now been cleared.
The State Department has told some leaders in Congress that it is “satisfied no actual transfers were made,” and has “made sure the UAE fully appreciates the letter of their agreements” with the US, another source with knowledge of the investigation told CNN.
With that assurance, the lawmakers gave their blessing to a new proposed sale of US military hardware to the UAE, the source said.
On May 7, the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) announced that the Pentagon had approved the proposed sale of up to 4,569 surplus US-made Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles to the UAE for an estimated cost of $556 million. The sale would serve the US national interest by helping to support the security of “an important regional partner,” the DSCA news release said.
But a lack of transparency over the findings of the US investigation has raised questions about the propriety of the Trump administration’s decision to approve the proposed sale of MRAPs to the UAE, given the evidence of past unauthorized transfers and bipartisan Congressional opposition to several proposed arms sales last year. It also comes as Pompeo has been accused of pressuring officials to find ways to justify arms sales to Saudi.
In a statement to CNN last week, the UAE would not confirm or deny whether it had been cleared but said its “armed forces confirmed to the US government its continued adherence to the terms and conditions” of the arms sales.
The Pentagon said it could not comment on the investigation or subsequent conversations with Congress, and directed CNN to the State Department for further comment.
The State Department confirmed to CNN that its investigation had concluded. “We believe that the UAE now has a better understanding of its EUM (End User Monitoring) obligations,” an official said, without providing further details.
But some US government officials told CNN they were concerned that the UAE was cleared of wrongdoing and that this contentious move was made while Congress was focused on the current coronavirus crisis. Two administration officials were willing to be quoted but asked not to be named due to fears of retribution.
“Look, the arms sales thing is really key for Trump personally and it’s been a real point of contention with Congress, even Republicans have been pushing back,” said one senior official with knowledge of the issue. “The Emirates is a key ally and we believe that this sale is in the US national interest. This felt like a good time to push this through.”
A second senior official familiar with the deal was much more concerned about the approval of the potential MRAP sales at the present time.
“We had real issues getting cooperation from them [the Emirates] on our investigation,” the official told CNN. “Their sense was that they didn’t feel they’d done anything wrong, which doesn’t really bode well for future compliance, but the message we got from the top was Trump wants this done and now is a good time to push through.”
The National Security Council did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
Fears sale could undermine US national security
Congress and the Trump administration have been at loggerheads over the issue of US arms sales, with rare bipartisan unity shown in efforts to rein in the White House.
Elizabeth Warren and Chris Murphy, two Democratic senators who have led the push to stop arms sales to the UAE and Saudi Arabia, slammed the May 7 decision and called on the administration to make the findings of its investigation public.
The announcement was made only days before the State Department’s inspector general, Steve Linick, was fired by President Donald Trump at the recommendation of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Allegations subsequently emerged that Pompeo had refused to cooperate with the inspector general, who was conducting an investigation into the administration’s attempt last year to fast-track arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Pompeo defended his push to have Linick dismissed in remarks Wednesday – saying he “should have done it some time ago” – but refused to explain his reasoning for the move. It was unclear whether the inspector general’s investigation spurred Pompeo to recommend his firing.
In May 2019, the Trump administration declared an emergency in an effort to bypass Congress and expedite $8.1 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other countries, citing the need to deter what it called “the malign influence” of Iran throughout the Middle East.
Four sources told CNN this week that Pompeo had pushed State Department officials to find a way to justify the emergency declaration that he had already decided to implement in order to fast-track the arms sales, stunning career diplomats.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle came together last summer to pass a trio of Congressional resolutions blocking the sales, but Trump ultimately vetoed those resolutions.
The proposal approved on May 7 is the next phase of a $2.5 billion arms deal that was agreed with the UAE in 2014. The deal was put on hold last year pending the results of the US investigation.
An aide to Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said the State Department had briefed his committee on the probe.
“The Department of State repeatedly briefed Foreign Affairs Committee staff on its investigation into the unauthorized re-transfer of MRAPs that were sold to the UAE in 2014, which concluded earlier this year,” Leslie Shedd said in a statement.
Shedd added that McCaul and other top leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Senate Foreign Relations Committee had previously reviewed and approved the proposed sale. Shedd referred CNN back to the State Department when asked whether the investigation had cleared the UAE of wrongdoing.
Sen. James Risch, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, declined to comment and referred questions to the State Department. Rep. Eliot Engel, the Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
Warren slammed the State Department for not publicly sharing the findings of the investigation in a letter sent last week to Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper.
“To my knowledge, there has been no unclassified publication or transmission of any kind to Congress of the findings of your visits to the UAE and Saudi Arabia to address the improper diversion of US military hardware that we sold to these governments, and the corrective actions, if any, taken to address these allegations,” the senator said in a letter dated May 14 seen by CNN.
“If your Departments’ investigation into the improper diversion of the same category of US military hardware by US allies has not concluded, or concluded without any actions taken to prevent these diversions in the future, then I am concerned that the continued sale of this equipment undermines US national security.”
Murphy, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, criticized the proposed sale and called on Congress to block it.
“Congress should not allow another arms sale to the UAE until the administration makes public its report regarding the Emiratis’ likely serious violations of previous arms sales agreements. We cannot allow our allies to take arms we sell them and pass them along to dangerous, extremist militias, as the Emiratis did. There should be accountability when there is a meaningful violation of [an] arms sale agreement, and this arms sale sends the opposite message,” Murphy told CNN.
Multiple US officials confirmed to CNN that the UAE was investigated under Section 3 of the Arms Export Control Act (AECA), which prohibits the transfer of US armaments to third parties without prior authorization.
CNN revealed last February that the Emiratis had handed over American-made MRAPs to an ultra-conservative militia in Yemen called the Giants Brigades.
At the time, an Emirati official told CNN that the Giants Brigades was a “part of Yemeni forces” and under the UAE’s direct supervision, and therefore the equipment was in the “collective possession” of the coalition.
But under the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s arms sales agreements with the US, American-made MRAPs are considered “proprietary technology,” which neither party is supposed to let out of its control. Recipients of US weaponry are legally obligated to adhere to end-use requirements which prohibit the transferring of any equipment to other parties without prior authorization. That authorization was never obtained.
The US Department of Defense, when asked specifically about the Giants Brigades last year, said it had not given the UAE or Saudi Arabia permission to hand over US weaponry to other factions on the ground.
In a letter obtained by CNN in November, the State Department admitted that the “continued insufficient responses” of the UAE and Saudi Arabia had delayed the probe.
The letter, from the State Department’s Bureau of Legislative Affairs, said that a joint State-Pentagon visit was carried out to the UAE in September to verify what had happened to the MRAPs the US supplied.
The letter added that another similar “oversight visit” to Saudi Arabia was planned for November, after which “the Department expects to have a full account of the circumstances related to the disposition of this equipment and any potential violation of the agreements.”
Saudi officials, when asked whether they had been similarly cleared, did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
UAE withdraws troops but maintains influence
CNN revealed in October that US MRAPs had again been distributed – in contravention of arms deals – to militia groups in Yemen, including the Giants Brigades. The militia had taken up the separatist cause and was using this equipment in the fight against government forces, who had also been armed with US weapons by Saudi Arabia. Adding another layer of chaos to an already fracturing conflict.
After five years of involvement in Yemen, the UAE announced last July that it would gradually withdraw all of its troops from the country, switching its strategy of involvement from boots on the ground to relying ever more heavily on its local proxies.
In its latest statement, the Emirates told CNN it has “largely drawn down its presence from Yemen and is concentrated on counter-terrorism efforts against AQAP, ISIS and other dangerous groups.”
But the UAE has maintained operational control of several militias or non-state actors, including the Southern Transitional Council (STC), a secessionist group based in the southern port city of Aden that has often fueled a war within the war between the various factions of the Gulf-backed coalition.
Allied groups have time and again turned their guns on each other, detracting from their larger mission of dislodging the Houthi militia which controls the capital, Sanaa, and much of Yemen’s north.
There were signs of hope last November when, as the Emirati military came close to completing its drawdown, the STC signed an agreement with the Saudi-backed, internationally-recognized government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi. The Riyadh pact gave the STC the legitimacy it craved and guaranteed the UAE a foothold in the conflict even after the last Emirati soldier left Yemeni soil.
But political maneuvering has once again put the lives of ordinary Yemenis at risk.
On April 25, the STC turned its back on the Riyadh deal and announced it would establish self-rule in the areas under its control.
The move sparked another outbreak of violence in Yemen that has coincided with an increase in Covid-19 infections. The United Nations has warned the virus could spread rapidly in a country where the health care system is fragile and millions are on the brink of famine.
Roughly 80% of the population is already in need of humanitarian assistance or protection, according to the World Health Organization, which said 197 cases and 33 coronavirus-related deaths had been confirmed in Yemen as of Friday.
CNN’s Barbara Arvanitidis, Ryan Browne and Sarah Sirgany contributed to this report.