UAE to get its first Reaper drones, clinches F-35 deal as Trump administration pushes through final arms sales 

Key Points
  • If completed, the sale will be the first American transfer of lethal unmanned aerial systems to any Arab ally, and the UAE would become the first Arab country to get the Lockheed Martin fifth-generation stealth jet, the most advanced fighter aircraft on the market. 
  • The sale includes up to 18 MQ-9 Reapers and related equipment for $2.97 billion, and up to 50 F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets and accompanying equipment for an estimated $10.4 billion.
A pair of MQ-9 Reapers from the 46th Expeditionary Attack Squadron are parked on the flightline at Ali Al Salem Air Base, Kuwait, June 9, 2020.
Senior Airman Isaiah J. Soliz | U.S. Air Force

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The United Arab Emirates is now the closest it's ever been to getting choice American weapons it has wanted for several years: lethal drones and F-35 joint strike fighter jets.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced via Twitter on Tuesday: "Today, the United States notified Congress of proposed UAE purchases of F-35 fighter aircraft, MQ-9B UAS, and munitions worth $23.37 billion to deter and defend against increased threats from Iran following historic Abraham Accords."

An anticipated development ever since the UAE officially established diplomatic ties with Israel for the first time in August, the news is seen as a big deal. The sale, if completed, will be the first American transfer of lethal unmanned aerial systems to any Arab ally, and the UAE would become the first Arab country to get the Lockheed Martin fifth-generation stealth jet, the most advanced fighter aircraft on the market. 

"This is a very significant sale, as it is not often that a DCSA (Defense Security Cooperation Agency) notification recognizes that a sale 'will alter the regional military balance', highlighting the gravity of these announced proposed sales," Charles Forrester, a principal analyst at IHS Janes, told CNBC via email on Wednesday.

Reaper drones and stealth jets

The sale includes up to 18 MQ-9 Reapers and related equipment for $2.97 billion. Produced by General Atomics, the Reaper is a hunter-killer drone that can carry up to four Hellfire missiles as well as laser-guided bombs and joint direct attack munitions. 

The UAE military has had Chinese-made armed drones for some time now, so while the purchase of American armed drones will be an incremental upgrade to its arsenal, the quality and capability of the Reapers is superior and will further align the Emirates with their U.S. and U.K. allies, weapons experts say. 

All three F-35 variants at Edwards Air Force Base, California: the Navy's F-35C, the Marine Corps' F-35B, and the Air Force's F-35A variant.
Lockheed Martin

And the acquisition of up to 50 F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets by the UAE for an estimated $10.4 billion "will be a significant boost for the country's conventional deterrence capabilities, as well as gaining multi-domain superiority," Forrester said. The deal is seen as a clear indicator of the trust not only between Washington and Abu Dhabi, but that of Israel, as well.  

Weapons export policy loosened under Trump

The U.S. sells billions of dollars' worth of weapons, training and other security assistance to the UAE, a top regional security partner, and its other Gulf allies. Until now, however, Washington has not supplied those allies with its armed drone technology due to strict export regulations

But in the face of record Middle East defense spending and encroaching foreign competition, the Trump administration, eager to support the U.S. weapons industry, relaxed export rules in June allowing it to sell more technologies to more allies. 

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Donald Trump and United Arab Emirates (UAE) Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed display their copies of signed agreements as they participate in the signing ceremony of the Abraham Accords, normalizing relations between Israel and some of its Middle East neighbors, in a strategic realignment of Middle Eastern countries against Iran, on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, U.S., September 15, 2020.
Tom Brenner | Reuters

In early 2019, Lt. Gen. Charles Hooper, director of the DSCA, told CNBC about changes underway to the Conventional Arms Transfer policy, which until recently prevented the sale of armed drones to Washington's Arab allies.

"We want to make many of our unmanned aerial systems available to our partners. Many of them have been asking for some time, we're going to move forward as quickly as possible," Hooper said at the time. 

Nearly two years later, those efforts have come to fruition — and major sales that have the power to reshape regional dynamics are being pushed through in the twilight months of Trump's presidential term. 

Rushing it through?

To Michael Stephens, senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, this appears an effort to rush last-minute deals through before leaving office.  

"It is clear the administration wants to create a fait accompli in the Middle East by taking a series of quick fire policy steps that they believe will be impossible for a Biden administration to overturn," Stephens told CNBC. 

Some Democratic lawmakers have questioned the sale, with House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel expressing "concern," saying in a statement on Oct. 30 that "rushing these sales is not in anyone's interest." What's stopped arms sales in the past includes concerns over proliferation, or risks that technology could end up in the wrong hands.    

Israel says it's the first country to use the US-made F-35 fighter jet in combat
Israel says it's the first country to use F-35 fighter jet in combat

But there is nothing legally questionable about the sale, according to Dave DesRoches, an associate professor and senior military fellow at the National Defense University in Washington.

"This is going fast, but it is going according to law. The fact that following the rules is seen as 'rushing it' really just shows how broken the system is," DesRoches said, critiquing the bureaucratic approvals process for arms transfers.  

It's important to look at what's not in the sale — like electronic warfare airplanes, DesRoches noted. "That probably means there was a tech review and it was decided that we wouldn't offer the UAE aircraft with the capabilities it wanted — that is, we're not giving them everything they asked for as Trump is bum-rushed out the door." Defense contracts and deliveries can take years to finalize, he added. 

The sale can go forward after 30 calendar days unless both houses of Congress pass a resolution of disapproval with a veto-proof majority.