February 4, 2021

IntelBrief: President Biden Halts Arms Sales and Reaffirms Human Rights

An F-35 fighter jet pilot and crew (Staff Sgt. Chris Thornbury/U.S. Air Force via AP)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • The Biden administration’s review of pending arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE reflects its policy differences with the two Gulf states.
  • Saudi Arabia and the UAE face U.S. policy shifts on Iran and Yemen, as well as renewed U.S. scrutiny of human rights abuses.
  • The administration will likely cancel the sale of precision-guided missiles to Saudi Arabia in an effort to end U.S. support for the war in Yemen.
  • The sale of F-35 combat aircraft to the UAE is likely to go forward because of the sale’s linkage to the UAE’s normalization of relations with Israel.

One week after taking office, Biden-Harris administration officials announced that they were reviewing the $23 billion sale of 50 F-35 Joint Strike Fighter stealth aircraft and 18 armed MQ-9 Reaper drones to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the nearly $500 million sale of precision-guided munitions to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Both sales were approved in the last months of the Trump administration, with the contract to sell the F-35 reportedly signed only hours before President Trump left office. The new administration could cancel both deals even though sales contracts have been signed, but the United States might have to pay the buyers’ cancellation penalties.

Biden-Harris administration officials explained the arms sales review as routine policy for any new administration. But, to most analysts, the holds confirmed that the new administration intends to alter the close, unquestioning relationship with both Gulf monarchies under Trump. Biden’s foreign policy aides have been uniformly critical of the Saudi and Emirati military operations in Yemen for causing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis in the name of fighting the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. To affirm its commitment to ending all U.S. support to the Gulf states’ Yemen campaign, the Biden administration is likely to cancel the munitions sale to Saudi Arabia. Biden administration officials also assert that the Trump administration did not hold Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) accountable for his involvement in the October 2018 Saudi killing of dissident journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. The new Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines, said during her confirmation hearings that she would, as required by Congress, release an unclassified report on the Khashoggi killing – a report certain to strain U.S. relations with Mohammed bin Salman, de facto leader of the Kingdom.

Further straining relations between the Biden-Harris administration, Saudi Arabia, and UAE are differences in approach toward Iran and the 2015 multilateral Iran nuclear agreement. Both Gulf countries cheered Trump’s abrogation of the 2015 nuclear deal in favor of a ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against Iran. Both Gulf states also justified their intervention against the Houthis in Yemen as an effort to reduce Iran’s regional influence. It was in large part the Houthis’ ties to Iran that enabled then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to justify designating the Houthis as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), effective the day before Biden’s inauguration. The Biden-Harris administration has expressed its intent to rejoin the Iran nuclear agreement and, concomitantly, to lift U.S. sanctions on Iran’s economy. To assuage regional states’ fears of a reduction of U.S. pressure on Iran, Biden administration officials have pledged to consult with the Gulf states and Israel on all Iran-related issues. However, the new administration has made clear that it will not risk derailing nuclear talks with Iran by incorporating regional demands that the United States require, as a condition of its lifting sanctions, that Iran cease supporting regional armed factions. Iranian leaders have indicated that they would not entertain including regional issues in any negotiations with the Biden administration on a U.S. return to the nuclear agreement. 

The considerations on the F-35 sale to the UAE are more complicated than for the Saudi munitions sale. International criticism of the UAE’s human rights record has always been more muted than it has been of the Kingdom’s practices. Since late 2019, UAE ground forces have not been fighting on the main fronts in Yemen, although the UAE air force remains engaged there. Perhaps above all, the F-35 sale was linked to the UAE’s September 2020 formalization of its diplomatic relationship with Israel. Despite some security sector concerns that the F-35 sale could erode Israel’s ‘Qualitative Military Edge’ (QME), Israeli leaders refrained from opposing the agreement. That Israeli stance blunted U.S. congressional opposition to the sale. The Biden administration has praised the UAE-Israel ‘Abraham Accords,’ which, in the final weeks of the Trump administration, also drew in another Gulf state, Bahrain, as well as Sudan and another Arab monarchy, Morocco. US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, has said the administration hopes to ‘build on’ the Accords, while at the same time reversing the Trump policy of shelving relations with the Palestinian leadership. Canceling the F-35 sale would call into question whether the United States will honor U.S. commitments and understandings of the Accords. For that reason, allowing the F-35 sale to the UAE to proceed would appear to be the path of least resistance for the new administration.