UAE walks away from F35

The decision is likely a bargaining tactic.

December 21, 2021 - 2 minute read

UAE walks away from F35

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3 To Watch:

  1. UAE-US: UAE’s decision to suspend talks on F35 purchase likely a bargaining tactic – not a break – with US.
  2. GCC-UK: Ambitious scope and timeline of trade deal challenged by divergences among Gulf states.
  3. KSA-UAE: Commercial and geopolitical rivalry to deepen in 2022.

Note: This edition of 3 To watch was distributed in full on December 21

1. Emiratis walk away from F35

— Written by David des Roches, Professor, Near East South Asia Centre for Strategic Studies, Washington DC. Remarks do not reflect the views of any US government agency nor those of Azure Strategy–


Bottom Line:

The UAE has said it is suspending talks on purchasing the US F35 stealth fighter. The jets, the most advanced in the US fleet, had been offered as part of the Abraham Accords.

Buying advanced weapons from the US is not a straightforward commercial proposition; all come with restrictions on how they are used – some extremely onerous. ‘Crown jewels’ technologies such as stealth are subject to severe transfer controls, some of which may not have been known to the select few Americans who negotiated the Abraham Accords.

Buyers such as the UAE resent the strings attached to US deals and employ a wide range of negotiating tactics – such as threatening to walk away – in an attempt to get transfer conditions waived or obtain greater weapons capabilities.


Why This Matters:

Some analysts have cited the UAE’s rejection as a sign that it is decoupling from Washington as a strategic partner.

A more likely explanation is that the Emiratis were surprised by the extent of the end-use conditions attached to the F35, and by the unwillingness of the Biden administration to waive them. The threat to walk away – which happened days before the US-UAE strategic dialogue was held in the Pentagon – was most likely timed to narrow the agenda of the dialogue and pressure the American side into making a better offer.

Every US armaments sale to a foreign buyer is reviewed by multiple government agencies, but certain crown jewels weapons technologies are subject to a higher level of review which considers the implications of the technology being compromised and the end-use conditions needed to safeguard it.

For stealth – the primary benefit of the F35 – a purchaser must ensure that the buyer not allow any potential adversary of the US to have the ability to collect radar, electronic or other possible signature information on the aircraft in flight.  In practice, this means that countries such as Russia and China cannot have any sizable facility in a country that hopes to operate the F35.

The UAE has long sought the most advanced weaponry and is of the realistic view that the US is their only option as a security guarantor. It may wind up declining the F35, but that will not mark the end of the strategic partnership.