The United Arab Emirates hosts the 16th edition of the International Defense Exhibition (IDEX) in Abu Dhabi, with the participation of almost 65 countries and more than 1,300 exhibitors, in what is known as the largest defense exhibition in the region of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

In addition to offering countries a platform to present and commercialize their cutting-edge technologies, the UAE has signed major, large-scale contracts. For example, it has just signed a contract with China for the acquisition of the L-15 light attack and training aircraft intended for the training of fighter pilots.

According to the manufacturer, the L-15 could be used to train fourth- and fifth-generation fighter pilots. The UAE Air Force mainly operates US-made F-16 and French-made Mirage 4th generation fighters. The French Rafale, which is supposed to be 4th and 5th generation aircraft, is coming soon!

 However, the wealthy Emirati kingdom, which has launched into purchasing advanced military equipment in recent years, does not yet have a 5th generation fighter. Despite lengthy talks with the USA on the purchase of its F-35 Lightning II fifth-generation stealth aircraft, the deal was never finalized.

During the Donald Trump administration, the United States and the UAE negotiated a contract that included up to 50 F-35 fighters, 18 MQ-9 reaper drones, and more than $10 billion worth of advanced munitions.

Had the deal gone ahead, the UAE would have been the first Arab country to obtain both the sophisticated F-35 jet and the state-of-the-art Reaper UAV.

Because it was assumed that any sale to Abu Dhabi required the implicit agreement of Tel Aviv, negotiations began after the UAE and Israel signed the Abraham Accords.

It is against the law for the United States to sell weapons to Middle Eastern countries, including any technology or equipment that could reduce Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz both claimed they would not protest the sale after the Abraham contract was signed because they believed the United States would ensure Israel’s military superiority in the region.

Although the Israel-related bottlenecks were all but eliminated, the China factor entered the picture. The growing ties between the UAE and China alarmed American officials at the time.

Tensions ran high between the United States and the United Arab Emirates after Abu Dhabi refused to bar Huawei, a Chinese telecommunications company, from participating in 5G trials despite strong U.S. pressure.

This was a pressing concern for the U.S. because the installation of the cellular network, which has numerous cell towers near F-35 bases, could allow China to track and collect information on F-35s. 

UAE Negotiates Acquisition of US F-35 Fighters

UAE Assurances, Frustration, and Breakup

Despite the UAE’s claim that it has a history of protecting American military technology, the talks were postponed until the summer of 2021. It has used the F-16 fighter aircraft for several years, among other equipment.

Meanwhile, the Emirati kingdom began to resent how the United States dictated terms to the country. Some difficult and unexpected measures were taken.

The United Arab Emirates discontinued its use of the F-35 stealth plane in early December 2021 after signing a contract with the French company Dassault Aviation to purchase eighty Rafale F4 fighters, the newest variant of the 4.5-generation fighter jet.

A year ago, the UAE said that it had paused negotiations on a $23 billion sale for 50 F-35s and 18 MQ-9 Reaper drones. “Technical requirements, sovereign operating restrictions, and cost-benefit analysis have led to reassessment,” a UAE official stated.

The former U.K. ambassador to Syria, Peter Ford, stressed Washington’s arrogant demands, such as disabling any capabilities the planes might have, which could harm Israel, and gave the UAE good excuses for leaving the deal.

Furthermore, the added pressure to loosen ties with China seemed too high a price to pay, as Abu Dhabi and Beijing have been tightening relations. In addition, the UAE has worked to diversify its choices to not place all of its eggs in one basket, particularly after the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The potential of the United States selling the F-35 and MQ-9 Reaper to the United Arab Emirates may not be dead, despite the uncertainty that has persisted for over a year. The absence of US F-35 fighters makes this a particularly pressing issue since military analysts have warned that the UAE may wind up purchasing a fifth-generation fighter jet from China or Russia.

Is the deal on the F-35 still alive?

A senior U.S. State Department official has stated that talks are ongoing between the U.S. and the United Arab Emirates regarding the probable sale of F-35 stealth aircraft and MQ-9 Reaper drones.

The only caveat, however, is that even if these negotiations come to fruition, it will be years before the Emiratis take delivery of the fighter jets.

According to a U.S. Foreign Department official, the UAE air force withdrew its offer and acceptance letters for the systems and returned them to the Pentagon in 2021 due in part to the several impasses that had occurred during discussions.

Stanley Brown, principal deputy assistant secretary for the office of political-military affairs, who spoke to Breaking Defense, said the deal lives on.

On the sidelines of the IDEX expo, Brown said: “We are in an ongoing and robust dialogue with the UAE on these sales. We remain committed to them, although we are continuing consultations to ensure we have a clear and mutual understanding regarding Emirati obligations and actions before, during, and after delivery.”