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Biden admin puts a hold on Trump's arms sale to United Arab Emirates

NBC News logo NBC News 1/27/2021 Dan De Luce
a fighter jet sitting on top of a runway © Provided by NBC News

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration has placed a pause on several arms sales that were initiated by former President Donald Trump, including a major deal featuring F-35 fighter jets for the United Arab Emirates, officials said Wednesday.

The arms sale for the Emiratis came after the UAE signed an agreement to normalize relations with Israel for the first time, but President Joe Biden’s secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said the administration wanted to examine the deal.

“We're also trying to make sure that we have a full understanding of any commitments that may have been made in securing those agreements, and that's something we're looking at right now,” Blinken said at his first news conference since he was sworn in on Tuesday.

Blinken also said the hold on arms sales was customary with the beginning of a new administration.

“It is typical at the start of an administration to review any, pending sales to make sure that what is being considered is something that advances, our strategic objectives and advances our foreign policy so that's, that's what we're doing at this moment,” Blinken said.

The State Department said earlier the hold on foreign arms sales was "routine" and would allow the new administration to review the deals.

"This is a routine administrative action typical to most any transition, and demonstrates the Administration's commitment to transparency and good governance, as well as ensuring U.S. arms sales meet our strategic objectives of building stronger, interoperable, and more capable security partners," a State Department spokesperson said.

It was not clear how long the pause would last and officials did not say what other arms sales could be affected.

In the closing months of the Trump administration, officials rushed to complete a massive deal with the United Arab Emirates worth roughly $23.37 billion. The package included 50 radar-evading F-35A fighter aircraft worth an estimated $10.4 billion, as well as MQ-9B drones and an array of missiles.

The Trump White House announced the sale after the signing of the Abraham Accords in which Bahrain and the UAE recognized Israel for the first time. It was one of the largest arms deals of Trump's presidency and the largest ever between the U.S. and the UAE.

Antony Blinken, the new secretary of state who was sworn in on Tuesday, had indicated in his confirmation hearing last week that the Biden administration would examine promises made to the United Arab Emirates in return for the normalization of relations with Israel.

"There are certain commitments that may have been made in the context of getting those countries to normalize relations with Israel that I think we should take a hard look at, and I imagine the committee feels the same way," Blinken told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Jan. 19.

Blinken, however, praised the agreement between Israel and the Arab countries as an important and positive step.

Democrats in Congress, including Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., had criticized the arms sale to the Emirates, accusing the Trump administration of trying to constrain the next president and push the deal through before Biden was inaugurated.

Lawmakers also questioned if sensitive U.S. military technology in the weapons sale would be secure with the Emiratis, citing the country's ties with Russia and China as well as its role in fighting in Libya.


The UAE's ambassador to the United States, Yousef Al Otaiba, said in a tweet that the review had been anticipated and was customary during a transition from one U.S. administration to another.

The ambassador said "the F-35 package is much more than selling military hardware to a partner" and that it would bolster regional security and free up the United States for other military missions.

"Like the U.S., it allows the UAE to maintain a strong deterrent to aggression. In parallel with new dialogue and security cooperation, it helps to reassure regional partners," he wrote.

"It also enables the UAE to take on more of the regional burden for collective security, freeing U.S. assets for other global challenges, a long-time bipartisan U.S. priority."

Democrats have also questioned arms transfers to Saudi Arabia and expressed outrage when the Trump administration in 2019 invoked a rarely used legal authority to bypass Congress. Several newly appointed officials in the Biden administration previously have expressed criticism over the deals and Riyadh's role in the Yemen war.

"This is a critical step by the administration and we call on President Biden to permanently halt the sale of arms and other military support bound for the conflict in Yemen — and for other nations supplying the Saudi-led coalition to follow suit," said Scott Paul of Oxfam America.


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