United Arab Emirates Halts Discussion on $23B Purchase of Planes, Drones from U.S.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced Tuesday it would freeze talks with the United States on a multi-billion-dollar weapons purchase deal.

The deal called for the U.S. to sell $23 billion worth of F-35 planes, armed drones and air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions to the UAE. The Emirati embassy in Washington said it will still carry on with a scheduled meeting at the Pentagon on other matters, but would like to "suspend discussions" on the weapons sale.

Officials from the UAE said their reason for suspending the talks was the U.S. inserting restrictions on where and how the planes could be used a condition which UAE officials believed violated UAE sovereignty.

However, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said these requirements "are universal, non-negotiable, and not specific to the UAE."

An anonymous individual close to the matter who spoke with the Associated Press said the U.S. believes the suspension is a negotiating tactic, as the letter from the UAE letting the U.S. know of the suspension was written by a lower-ranking official.

The U.S. State Department and the Emirati embassy have both remained open to the idea that talks could resume.

"The U.S. remains the UAE's preferred provider for advanced defense requirements and discussions for the F-35 may be re-opened in the future," the embassy said in a statement.

F-35, plane, Vermont Air National Guard
On Tuesday, the United Arab Emirates suspended talks on a $23 billion deal to purchase American-made F-35 planes, armed drones and other equipment, in a rare dispute between Washington and a key U.S. ally in the Persian Gulf. Above, an F-35 fighter jet arrives at the Vermont Air National Guard base in South Burlington, Vermont, Sept. 19, 2019. Wilson Ring, File/AP Photo

The proposed sale of 50 F-35s to the UAE came at the end of former President Donald Trump's administration, emerging from a deal that saw the Emiratis formally recognize Israel. President Joe Biden's administration put the deal on hold after he took office, in part due to criticism of the UAE and Saudi Arabia over their yearslong war in Yemen, which has sparked one of the world's worst humanitarian crises and continues today.

Also included in the deal are 18 advanced drone systems and a package of air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions.

The State Department said in a statement that the administration "remains committed to the proposed sales ... even as we continue consultations to ensure that we have a clear, mutual understanding of Emirati obligations and actions before, during, and after delivery."

"The U.S. partnership with the UAE is more strategic and more complex than any one weapon sale," Kirby said.

The Wall Street Journal first disclosed the suspension of negotiations.

The UAE has long worked with the U.S. on counterterrorism and allowed the entry of people fleeing Afghanistan during the chaotic U.S. withdrawal earlier this year. But tensions between Washington and Abu Dhabi have risen over the UAE's growing cooperation with China.

Last week, a top Emirati diplomat acknowledged the UAE stopped construction on a Chinese facility at an Abu Dhabi port that America considered a military base. The Journal first revealed the presence of the alleged facility.

"We took these American concerns into consideration and we stopped the work on the facilities," the diplomat, Anwar Gargash, told a meeting of the the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. "But our position remains the same, that these facilities were not really military facilities."

He described the discussions between the UAE and the U.S. "as quite frank."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.