WASHINGTON – The Biden administration suspends some arms sales to the Gulf Arab states as it examines major U.S. arms deals approved by the Trump administration, including tens of billions of dollars in fighter jets advanced to the United Arab Emirates and precision munitions to Saudi Arabia.
A State Department official speaking on the merits said on Wednesday the halt to unfinished arms sales and transfers was temporary, calling the review a typical routine action of presidential transitions.
But it has attracted unusual attention as the arms deals with Arab Gulf countries, approved in the final months of the Trump administration, have been the subject of intense political debate even before the review. Some Democrats expressed hope on Wednesday that sales would be canceled, even if the administration downplays the review.
Democrats in Congress have strongly opposed the sales out of disgust at Saudi Arabia and the Emirates’ role in Yemen’s grueling civil war, which has inflicted vast suffering on civilians, but failed to attract enough Republican support to block deals in Congress in December. Many Democrats began pressuring President Biden even before his inauguration to stop sales.
The deals in question include the sale of $ 23 billion to the Emirates of 50 F-35 fighters and 18 Reaper drones, which President Donald J. Trump approved in the fall to urge the Emirates to normalize diplomatic relations with Israel in the fall. part of the “Abraham Accords,” one of Mr. Trump’s proudest accomplishments.
In late December, the State Department approved the sale of $ 478 million in precision guided munitions to Saudi Arabia, over strong objections from Democrats, who said the bombs would certainly end up killing innocent civilians in the country. Yemen. Trump administration officials have called the deal essential to support the Saudis in their fight against the Iran-backed Houthis. Officials have not provided full details of all the deals under review, but Mr Trump has approved the sale of billions of dollars in arms to the Saudis.
The news comes as many Democrats in Congress are calling for a reassessment of US relations with the Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia. Mr. Trump and Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser, have worked in virtual lockdown with the Saudis and Emiratis. But Democrats say the war in Yemen and human rights issues, including the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018, demand a more skeptical relationship.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, briefing State Department reporters on his first full day on the job, said the review was routine.
“When it comes to arms sales, it is common in the early days of an administration to look at pending sales to ensure that those being considered advance our strategic goals and our foreign policy.” Mr Blinken said.
In a report posted on twitter through his embassy, the Emirati ambassador to Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba, also stressed the routine nature of the freeze.
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“As in previous transitions, the UAE was planning a review of current policies by the new administration,” Otaiba said.
But Mr. Otaiba also made a more detailed case for the deal – arguing, among other things, that it “allows the UAE to shoulder more of the regional burden of collective security, freeing up US assets for d ‘other global challenges, a long time. bipartisan American priority. “
Still, some Congressional Democrats said on Wednesday that the arms deals should – or even very likely would – be canceled.
“This marks the end of American ambivalence in the face of unreasonable human suffering in Yemen,” said Representative Ro Khanna of California, a member of the Armed Services Committee and open critic of arms sales to the Gulf states, said on twitter. “We will no longer appease brutal dictators for political or personal gain. Great news from Biden. “
Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, agreed.
“The weapons we sold to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been used to kill school children, transferred to extremist militias and fuel a dangerous arms race in the Middle East. It’s the right decision, ”he written on twitter. “The time has come to reset our relations with the Gulf allies.”
The Emirates have partnered with Saudi Arabia for years to fight the Houthis in Yemen, but withdrew their forces in late 2019.
Dennis Ross, who has handled Middle Eastern affairs for four presidents, said the review was unsurprising and typical of a new administration. But he said the Biden administration was eager to show “that it takes advanced arms sales seriously and wants to consider the implications of those sales, especially in a country like the Middle East. “.
Mr Ross predicted that the administration would eventually give the green light to the deal with the Emirates, in part because Mr Biden supported the diplomatic deal with Israel on which the planes were conditioned.
On Wednesday, Blinken called the Abraham Accords a “very positive development” and said the Biden administration hoped to build on them. But he said he wanted to review the agreements.
“We also try to make sure that we have a full understanding of any commitments that may have been made to get these deals,” Blinken said. “And that’s something we’re looking at right now.”
A bipartisan concern over the sale of the F-35, the most advanced fighter in the United States, has been that it could threaten Israel’s military superiority in the Middle East. Under federal law, the United States must ensure that Israel retains a “qualitative military advantage” over its neighbors. Trump administration officials have insisted that high-tech stealth planes do not interfere with this goal, but have not publicly provided details to support their claim.
“The pause on precision munitions for the Saudis may be more of a statement,” Ross added. “The break could be linked to statements that were made during the campaign about no longer militarily supporting the Saudis in their campaign in Yemen.”
Mr Blinken also said last week during his Senate confirmation hearing that the United States would end its multi-year support for the Saudi campaign in Yemen.
But Mr Ross noted that the State Department condemned a weekend missile or drone attack on Riyadh allegedly launched by Houthi rebels in Yemen, whose takeover of the Yemeni capital in 2015 has dragged Saudi Arabia and the Emirates into that country’s civil war.
The statement said the United States would “help our partner Saudi Arabia defend itself against attacks on its territory and hold those who attempt to undermine stability to account.”
Reporting was contributed by Catie edmondson, Lara jakes, Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt.