Selling US Arms to United Arab Emirate Is Not Defensible

April 18th, 2021 - by William Hartung / Center for International Policy

Selling Arms to the UAE Is Not In US Security Interests

William Hartung / Center for International Policy

(April 15, 2021) — The Biden administration’s decision to approve a $23 billion package of F-35 combat aircraft, MQ-9 armed drones, and $10 billion in bombs and missiles to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) contradicts its pledge to make human rights and long-term US interests the central factors in deciding which nations to supply with US arms.

The UAE is an unreliable partner that has fueled conflict, transferred US-supplied weapons to extremist groups, and inflicted severe human rights abuses on its own population. Its conduct has done more harm than good with respect to US security interests. Whatever pledges the UAE may make regarding its use of the US weapons involved in the current package, the UAE’s record does not inspire confidence that it will abide by them.

A Saudi-lead airstrike in 2015 destroyed a Yememi school in Sa’ada.

Conduct that Should Disqualify the UAE from Receiving US Arms:

•  Despite claims to the contrary, the UAE continues to play a role in the brutal war in Yemen, which has resulted in nearly a quarter of a million deaths and pushed millions to the brink of famine, even as it has created more space for extremist groups like Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to operate and recruit new members and driven the Houthi rebels closer to Iran.

•  The UAE is a primary supplier of weaponry to the forces of Gen. Khalifa Haftar in Libya and has engaged in drone strikes that have killed civilians, all in violation of a United Nations arms embargo. There is also evidence to suggest it has financed the Wagner Group, a collection of Russian-backed mercenaries fighting in Yemen.

•  The UAE has transferred US supplied weapons, including armored vehicles, to extremist militias in Yemen, some of which have ties to AQAP. The UAE has security ties to Russia and China and has purchased Russian missile defense systems, raising the danger of sensitive US technology being supplied to these two nations.

•  The weapons in the $23 billion package are more likely to be used in wars like those in Libya and Yemen than to deter or fight Tehran.

•  UAE purchases of arms from Russia could subject it to sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which, if enforced, could preclude it from receiving advanced US weaponry, as happened with Turkey with respect to its purchases of Russian S-400s and its exclusion from the F-35 program.

•  The sale of F-35s to the UAE could open the door to sales of these aircraft to other Gulf States, spurring an arms race in the region.

•  The sales will likely include the transfer of US technology and jobs to the UAE via o set agreements with US companies. For example, the UAE is seeking the opportunity to build parts for the F-35 that will be used not just on the jets they are purchasing but on all US F-35s produced worldwide, reducing jobs in the United States as a result.

Issue Brief: The UAE’s Role in the Yemen War, 2015 to Present

Elias Yousif and William D. Hartung / Security Assistance Monitor

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has played a central and enduring role in the Saudi-led war in Yemen. Despite its widely publicized military “withdrawal” of ground forces from the country earlier this year, the UAE has continued to exert coercive influence on the ground, especially through the support of Yemeni militias and other proxies.

In addition to its violation of the UN arms embargo on Libya and its dismal human rights record at home and abroad, the UAE’s role in the Yemeni war provides ample reason to block the proposed sale of $23 billion worth of combat aircraft, armed drones, and precision-guided bombs of the type that have been used to target civilians in Yemen.

• Since the start of the Yemen war — which has left 112,000 dead since 2015 and put millions on the brink of starvation — the UAE has been the primary ground force for the Saudi/UAE-led coalition there, both through deployment of its own Special Forces and its support for tens of thousands of members of Yemeni militias, including extremist groups with ties to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The UAE. also used fighter jets, drones and US-supplied attack helicopters and precision-guided munitions to participate in the Coalition’s air war in Yemen, which has killed thousands of civilians.

• Although the UAE has withdrawn most of its troops from Yemen, it continues to exert influence over the conflict by arming and training militias that have helped prolong the war — all while engaging in torture and impeding the provision of humanitarian aid. The torture by UAE proxies continues to this day. The UAE has also been accused of employing foreign mercenaries to the country who have been responsible for IHL and human rights abuses.

• Emirati backed separatists in Yemen’s south have clashed repeatedly with the internationally recognized government, at one point taking over the port-city of Aden and the seat of the Hadi administration, creating yet another axis of conflict in the country that has pitted nominal allies inside and outside Yemen against one another, frustrating broader peace efforts.

• In all, the UAE has proxy forces of up to 90,000 militia members operating in Yemen. As noted by a UN experts panel, the UAE has had substantial control of these forces since their formation: “The United Arab Emirates formed the Forces, selected the commanders, recruited and trained the troops, paid salaries and provided weapons, equipment and logistics. The Forces worked with the United Arab Emirates on joint operations and took specific orders and instructions from United Arab Emirates’ troops.”

• US weapons supplied to the UAE — including small arms and armored vehicles — were diverted to Yemeni militias, extremist groups, and even ended up in the hands of the Houthi opposition. The UAE’s irresponsible stewardship of past US arms transfers is another reason to refrain from arming it at this time.

• The United States should cease selling arms to the UAE until it ends its interference in the wars in Yemen and Libya, supports durable ceasefires, engages in good faith negotiations for peaceful settlements to the two conflicts, and improves its domestic human rights record while ceasing harassment and repression of Emirati exiles.

For further information contact the authors of this fact sheet, Elias Yousif ( or William Hartung ( William D. Hartung is the Director of the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy. 2000 M Street NW, Suite 720, Washington, DC 20036 

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