President Joe Biden is advancing controversial Trump-era plans to transfer $23.4 billion in sophisticated weaponry to the United Arab Emirates, a State Department spokesperson told HuffPost on Tuesday ― despite concerns from influential lawmakers and progressive activists, as well as the Biden administration’s promise to review the package.
The news ― first reported by HuffPost ― came amid an ongoing lawsuit by a nonprofit group called the New York Center for Foreign Policy Affairs, which echoed criticism of the deal as potentially destabilizing for the Middle East.
“While we will not comment on ongoing litigation, we can confirm that that the Administration intends to move forward with these proposed defense sales to the UAE, even as we continue reviewing details and consulting with Emirati officials to ensure we have developed mutual understandings with respect to Emirati obligations before, during, and after delivery,” the spokesperson said.
Last December, nearly all Senate Democrats voted to try and block the sale, citing President Donald Trump’s rushed attempt to push it through and the UAE’s alarming violations of human rights at home and around the region.
Biden put the deal — which would give the UAE the F-35 fighter jet, armed drones and associated bombs and missiles — under review shortly after becoming president. The administration has since been vague about that process.
The transfers are incredibly complex and will take years to complete, so it was clear that they were not occurring yet. In January, an official told the Wall Street Journal that the UAE sales “were not frozen while they are being examined” — in contrast to Trump-era arms deals for Saudi Arabia, a UAE ally which has also faced growing criticism in Washington.
Democratic lawmakers and activists, who opposed the deal because of the UAE’s aggressive activities across the Middle East, wanted to ensure the Biden administration was serious about the review, to the extent of possibly shrinking the package to pressure the Emiratis to respect human rights standards.
“We can confirm that that the Administration intends to move forward with these proposed defense sales to the UAE, even as we continue reviewing details and consulting with Emirati officials.”
U.S. officials will continue raising rights and geopolitical concerns with the Emiratis, the State Department spokesperson told HuffPost.
“The estimated delivery dates on these sales, if implemented, are scheduled for after 2025 or later. Thus, we anticipate a robust and sustained dialogue with the UAE to [ensure] any defense transfers meet our mutual strategic objectives to build a stronger, interoperable, and more capable security partnership,” the spokesperson wrote in an email.
“We will also continue to reinforce with the UAE and all recipients of U.S. defense articles and services that U.S.-origin defense equipment must be adequately secured and used in a manner that respects human rights and fully complies with the laws of armed conflict.”
Biden aides informed Congress of the president’s plan to leave the deal intact during briefings last week, a U.S. official told HuffPost.
Opponents of the deal are likely to continue calling for it to be nixed and to keep highlighting the UAE’s brutal interventions in neighboring countries, notably Yemen and Libya.
Justin Russell of the New York Center for Foreign Policy Affairs told HuffPost his organization would continue its lawsuit against the State Department over the package.
“We believe that the Trump administration put this deal together in an illegal manner,” Russell said.
“It is our hope that the Biden administration would put mitigating a humanitarian crisis of global proportions before putting arms in the hands of an aggressor nation like the UAE,” he added, saying he was referring to ongoing wars in Yemen and Libya, where the UAE has backed proxy forces and carried out its own attacks.
On Wednesday morning, Russell’s group submitted a new filing against Secretary of State Antony Blinken in federal court. The document adds victims of UAE actions as plaintiffs, including the families of Libyans killed in a January 2020 drone strike for which the Emiratis have not acknowledged responsibility. Last year, HuffPost revealed that U.S. intelligence identified the incident as a UAE attack.
Calling Biden’s move a “terrible decision,” Kate Kizer of the advocacy group Win Without War said sending the weapons to the UAE could embolden other U.S. partners to worsen international conflicts.
“It’s a very worrisome signal that there is not a commitment to real accountability,” she added.
Skeptics of the deal could also use congressional maneuvers to hold it up in the coming months by attaching new conditions to the transfers in must-pass legislation or holding votes to signal frustration among lawmakers.
“None of these transfers would occur any time soon, so there will be ample time for Congress to review whether these transfers should go forward,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) noted Wednesday in a statement, saying he had “many questions” about Biden’s decision.