Editor’s Note: William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
The normalization agreement between Israel and the UAE, dubbed formally as the “Abraham Accords,” could potentially spark a new Middle East arms race. Given the multiple conflicts already raging in the region, all fueled by imported arms, that cannot be allowed to happen.
The first troubling sign came with reports that the UAE was expecting a green light to receive advanced F-35 combat aircraft and long-range armed drones from the US in exchange for its recognition of Israel. While these sales are not a formal part of the agreement, the UAE appears to be expecting them as a reward for its participation, and President Donald Trump told his favorite media outlet, the show “Fox and Friends,” that “I would have no problem selling them (the UAE) the F-35.”
The revelations of a possible F-35 deal with the UAE sparked consternation in Israel, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly denying that he signed off on the deal despite assertions by officials with knowledge of the negotiations that he had privately done so, according to The New York Times. In the face of fierce objections from defense and intelligence officials concerned that the sale would undercut the qualitative military edge (QME) over other regional states that the US has long promised to supply to Israel, Netanyahu appears to have come up with a solution: asking Washington to rush through approval of billions of dollars worth of additional advanced weaponry for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) to offset any possible arms deals between the United States and the UAE.
Netanyahu’s wish list, unveiled on the day of the signing of the Abraham Accords at the White House, is long: a dozen Boeing V-22 Osprey aircraft, another squadron of Lockheed Martin F-35s on top of the one already on order, early delivery of two Boeing KC-46 transport aircraft, replacement of Israel’s Boeing Apache attack helicopters, and increased numbers of bunker buster bombs of a type that would be useful in an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.
If the Trump administration accedes to Netanyahu’s request, it will not be cheap. Given the expense of the proposed sales, fulfilling the order would require an increase in US military aid to Israel, which is already slated to reach as much as $38 billion per year from 2019 to 2028.
With all the other urgent needs we face, from dealing with pandemics and climate change to bringing the economy back from the brink of depression, is it really the time to be funneling billions in new arms assistance to the Middle East?
New sales to the UAE and Israel will likely expand the US role as the dominant weapons supplier to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. A new report by the Center for International Policy has found that the US accounted for nearly 48% of arms deliveries to the region in the period from 2015 to 2019 – nearly three times the level achieved by the next largest supplier, Russia, and far and away ahead of China’s share of less than 3%.
Far from providing greater security, these sales have directly or indirectly helped fuel the conflicts in Syria, Libya, and Yemen, as well as an indiscriminate, scorched earth counter-terror campaign conducted by the Egyptian government in the Northern Sinai.
A number of observers have suggested that the Abraham Accords have as much or more to do with the Trump administration’s desire to consolidate a regional anti-Iran coalition as it does with bringing peace to the Middle East. Palestinian representatives, meanwhile, have voiced uniform skepticism, suggesting the deals will undercut pressure on Israel to negotiate in good faith for peace, in the long run.
Iran will not stand still in the face of this new flood of weaponry to US allies in the region. Tehran can’t afford to match Israel or the Gulf States in traditional armaments like combat aircraft, but it can, if it so chooses, ramp up its programs for missiles and nuclear weapons, or supply more arms and training to its regional allies.
The result is likely to be a new arms race at a time when wars in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya continue to cause immense human suffering even as they destabilize the region.
Truth be told, the UAE is just as likely to use any new weapons in other regional conflicts as it is to employ them to deter or fight with Iran. It is even less likely to threaten Israel with them. Although the UAE has withdrawn most of its troops from Yemen, the country arms and train militias that have helped prolong the war – all while engaging in torture according to an AP report and impeding the provision of humanitarian aid, in its role as a primary player in the Saudi-led coalition prosecuting the war. The UAE has denied the AP’s report of torture, that it has let weapons fall into unauthorized hands, and that it had been the source of weapons found in Libya.
The UAE’s history in Yemen and beyond should sow serious doubts about its ability to keep American weapons and technology out of the hands of US adversaries. US-supplied armored vehicles and small arms sold to the UAE have ended up in the hands of extremist militias with ties to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and the UAE is a major supplier of weaponry to the forces of Libya’s Gen. Khalifa Haftar in violation of a United Nations arms embargo, The New York Times reported. Add to this the UAE’s tilt toward the Assad regime in Syria, and there is a high probability that if the US sells arms to the UAE, they could be used against American interests and for purposes that undermine regional prospects for peace.
So, what is to be done?
First and foremost, if the UAE is truly interested in normal relations with Israel, there should be no need to grease the wheels with a major arms package. Instead, the US should take the lead in pressing for limits on arms sales to the region. That would be an accord worth celebrating.