LONG AWAITED

Abu Dhabi 2019 | AEROSPACE & DEFENSE | FOCUS: F-35 PURCHASE

The UAE is stepping up its geostrategic presence in the Middle East. The concrete outcome of such a heavier role will most likely be the purchase of the F-35, though the country has come a long way without it.

After waiting almost seven years, the UAE might finally be close to purchasing the Lockheed-manufactured F-35, as US Air Force's vice-chief of staff, General Stephen Wilson, acknowledged that the US would, “explore options for those nations and partners to benefit from [the F-35] capability." Synonymous with air superiority, the fifth-generation multirole fighter jet aircrafts were pinpointed as the ideal asset to spur the Emirates' geostrategic ambitions back in 2011. However, the huge steps taken in these seven years of wait have turned the country into a dominant regional force even before the almost imminent acquisition.

In efforts to convince the US of the good nature of the deal, Abu Dhabi kept reminding Washington how the Emirates have been the only Arab country to have participated in six US-led coalition operations in the region since the 1991 Gulf War. Still, the US never made it a matter of proving commitment to its military campaigns. Rather, the F-35 deal was delayed for three different reasons.

First, maintaining Israel's qualitative military edge in the region was a key prerogative of the Bush and Obama administrations. As the exclusive operator of Lockheed Martin's stealth fighters in the Middle East, the Israeli Air Force currently still benefits from Washington's long-standing policy of providing only one country in the region with the capabilities to defend itself from neighboring threats.

Second, Washington still wonders what geostrategic weight the UAE should bear in a context where diplomatic and commercial efforts have always been channeled toward the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The US knows the Emirates would be on its side in any military confrontation and they did not see any need to take such an alliance to the next level, keeping Riyadh as its special Arab point of reference.

Third, the UAE's policy of maintaining good relations with as many countries as possible did not fully align with US interests. With economic development at the forefront of the Emirates strategic priorities, an Emirati “friend-of-all" approach has never been fully compliant with the “either-with-or-against-us" policy guideline of post-9/11 America.
That being said, under the spectrum of a more assertive foreign policy, Abu Dhabi's strengthened relations with Riyadh and its flexibility in selecting military suppliers might indeed lead to the closure of the F-35 deal.

A powerful Saudi-UAE block has already pushed the US in the uncomfortable position of dealing with a disgruntled Qatari neighbor, following the 2017 blockade. The full-operational continuity of the al-Udeid air base in Qatar remains a strategic priority. Home to nearly 10,000 American troops, the base hosts the overseas headquarters for US Central Command, where any strike in the region would be launched from, including Syria. As such, Washington's eagerness to solve the dispute might lead to increase its offer on the negotiation table.

At the same time, the UAE has continued to engage in commercial partnerships both with Western and non-Western contractors. While it can count on relevant partnerships with Airbus, Piaggio, Lockheed Martin and on the F-16E/F Desert Falcons and Dassault Mirage 2000-9s, Abu Dhabi has allegedly bought Chinese UAV Wing Loong IIs and is on the verge of fostering its relationship with Moscow. This might come in the form of fourth-generation Russian Sukhoi Su- 35 Flanker E-Fighter jets joining the UAE's fleet, which would add up to the minority stake UAE funds hold in Russian Helicopters, a Rostec subsidiary, worth USD300 million. This last deal in particular regarding 5G attack helicopters could mark a significant window of opportunity for a military partnership between Moscow and Abu Dhabi.

Undoubtedly, an eventual F-35 purchase will capitalize a dramatic increase of the UAE's leverage as a major power broker in the Middle East. Despite taking nearly a decade to acquire the fighter jet, the Emirates have pursued a well-defined foreign policy that has allowed the country to shift from being a consumer to a provider of security in the region. Acquiring the Lockheed product will thus push the UAE's defense capabilities to the next level.