The US Senate narrowly passed laws that would block billions in arms sales to the United Arab Emirates. This was the most recent showdown between the White House and lawmakers on US relations with the Persian Gulf countries involved in the deadly conflict in Yemen.
The Senate voted 49-47 against the resolution that would block the sale of F-35 fighter jets to the UAE and 50-46 against blocking the sale of MQ-9 Reaper drones to the UAE. The result of the vote shattered hopes of some lawmakers to offer a definitive reprimand for the Trump administration's aggressive arms sales policy in the final weeks of his term in office.
The vote fell largely on party lines, with Democrats backing the move and Republicans against, sending the new Biden administration a strong signal about his party's opposition to the sale.
Although the resolutions had little chance of blocking sales even if they were passed – Trump threatened to veto the measures if they hit his desk – lawmakers continued to vote anyway. Congressional assistants said the move should set a marker for the government and send a signal to the new administration that it is unlikely to support U.S. arms sales to the Gulf and U.S. military assistance to the Saudi-UAE-led coalition in Yemen .
The vote sparked years of heated debates over some of the Trump administration's most controversial foreign policy priorities: comfortable relations with the Gulf states, the president's powers to conduct military activities overseas without prior approval from Congress, the government's tough policy towards Iran, and US involvement in what is considered the world's worst humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
Connecticut Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, who spoke in the Senate Wednesday, said he opposed the arms sales because they had not gone through proper Congressional review channels and the government was not properly addressing lawmakers' concerns about dealings with the United Arab Emirates have -end US military technology.
He also urged Republicans to support the move, saying they would want such a buy-in if President-elect Joe Biden, a Democrat, takes over the White House in January.
“Believe me, this is what my Republican colleagues will be asking for when a Democratic government takes office. They won't want to send a signal to the Biden administration today that they may not need to consult with you as a majority party in 2021, "Murphy said.
Legislators who supported arms sales said it was critical to deterring Iran and would not undermine Israel's military superiority in the region. "These sales can provide a critical deterrent to Iran's mounting threats to the United Arab Emirates and other countries, particularly after the arms embargo is lifted, and they send a clear message to Russia and China that the United States is the preferred partner in the region remain, "said Sen. Jim Risch, the Republican chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, told Foreign Policy. "These sales are representative of the already changing dynamics in a historically difficult region and Congress should support them."
From the outset, the Biden administration is expected to face pressure to exempt the United States from participating in the war in Yemen, which consists of arms sales, logistics and intelligence support from the Saudi and UAE-led coalition opposed to Iran-backed Houthi rebels are fighting.
"Congress and the prospective Biden administration should do everything possible to stop these arms sales and make a ceasefire and political settlement their top priority in Yemen," said Scott Paul, humanitarian policy expert at Oxfam America.
Nearly $ 23.4 billion in arms sales include 50 F-35s, 18 MQ-9 Reaper drones and $ 10 billion worth of ammunition. When completed, the UAE will be the second country in the region to receive high-end stealth fighters from the US after Israel – and the first Arab country to do so.
The State Department approved the sale in November under the Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between the United Arab Emirates and Israel, the United States' closest historical ally in the region. Within a few days, Sens. Bob Menendez, a Democrat; Rand Paul, a Republican; and Murphy suggested blocking sales. Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota, tabled similar resolutions on the House side.
Even before the vote, Trump signaled that he would veto the law if it were passed. The lifting of the veto would have required a two-thirds majority in the Senate.
Proponents of the arms sale included former high-ranking administrators who had argued with the president on other political issues – but not on his Hawkish policy towards Iran.
"US. Arms are urgently needed to defend ourselves against the Iranian threat in the Gulf," wrote John Bolton, Trump's former national security adviser, in a Wall Street Journal published ahead of the Senate vote. Bolton and others argue that withholding arms sales will not improve the humanitarian situation in Yemen, where some 16 million people are on the verge of famine. Former Defense Secretary James Mattis has also privately tried to convince cautious senators to support arms sales, such as this Huffington Post reported on Tuesday.
Opponents of the sales argue that such arms transfers not only exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, but could also expose sensitive US military technology to foreign opponents like Russia and China, as both countries are linked to the UAE.
Human rights enforcers have accused both the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia of indiscriminately using US weapons and attacking civilians during their military campaigns in Yemen against the Houthi rebels. A CNN investigation in 2019 found that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were distributing US-made weapons to fighters in Yemen linked to al-Qaeda and die-hard Salafi militias. The UAE government has denied these allegations. The Trump administration cleared the UAE of wrongdoing after an internal investigation, CNN reported in May. However, some lawmakers, including Murphy, said they had unanswered questions and didn't believe the matter was fully resolved.
"Even those open to arms sales in the UAE are concerned about how unique the F-35 is and how quickly that sale is being enforced," said Elana DeLozier, an expert on Yemen at the Washington Institute Middle East policy a think tank. "They are partly concerned about the speed of the advance because they believe that the questions about possible technology transfers in the UAE have not been adequately answered in Yemen."
The UAE Embassy in Washington has dismissed criticism from Democratic lawmakers ahead of the scheduled vote this week, responding to Murphy's criticism on Twitter that descriptions of the United Arab Emirates' close partnerships with Russia and China are a "crude Exaggeration "are.
“The UAE's need for advanced drones is a response to their increasing sophistication and deployment by adversaries across the region, including Iran and non-state actors. They are just as important for the defense of the UAE as they are for the US and other partners, ”tweeted the UAE embassy. "We would rather have the best US equipment, or we will be reluctant to find it from other sources, even if it is less capable."
The embassy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The United Arab Emirates withdrew most of their armed forces from Yemen in 2019 after almost five years of impasse in the conflict there. While the UAE does not publicly broadcast its troop holding in Yemen, experts and analysts estimate that the country holds several hundred soldiers in southern Yemen, mainly for counter-terrorism operations. The UAE also supports the Southern Transitional Council, a separatist group in southern Yemen that has a weak alliance with the internationally recognized Yemeni government.
Although the outgoing Trump administration and the new Biden administration have pledged to continue normalization between Israel and Arab nations such as the United Arab Emirates, the failed vote shows the increasing willingness of Congress to cross-party US arms sales to the Gulf to face anger over the Saudi Arabia waged war in Yemen. After senior Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Menendez halted sales of precision-guided ammunition to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia for more than a year, the Trump administration forced sales of $ 8 billion in May 2019 with the help of emergency agencies, overriding a Congressional resolution from the disapproval of a majority of lawmakers.
This emergency statement, which used a route to provide weapons to allies facing military threats, has been increasingly scrutinized by lawmakers and government guards in recent months. In a letter earlier this year, Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and Andy Levin, member of the Democratic Panel, accused Secretary of State Mike Pompeo of overseeing the "invention" of an emergency in April 2019. The State Department's inspector-general said in an August report that Pompeo had acted within its legal powers to declare the emergency to expedite sales, but failed to adequately address humanitarian concerns over the Saudi-led air war in Yemen .