On September 15th, 2020, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the UAE Foreign Affairs Minister Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan signed the Abraham Accord, a normalization agreement between the two Mideast nations. The agreement promises the establishment of diplomatic relations, business relations, tourism, and scientific cooperation. It was an unprecedented move, but also not entirely unsurprising as the UAE had been, subtly, developing security ties with Israel as well as diplomatically gesturing towards normalization during the last two decades. Normalization is not only a significant move for the two countries but for the region as well. After the signing of the Accord, Bahrain, Sudan, Egypt, Jordan, Oman, and (unofficially) Saudi Arabia came out in support of normalization, reflecting a regional openness towards non-aggression with Israel.
Additionally, the Abraham Accord introduced the possibility for the U.S. to sell MQ-9 Reaper drones and F-35’s—one of the U.S.’s most advanced stealth airplanes—to the UAE. The sale was not possible before the normalization because of a security agreement between the U.S. and Israel that states Israel must maintain a qualitative military edge (QME)—the tactical, technological, and intelligence advantages that allow it to deter adversaries—in the region.
There is public debate whether the sale will risk Israeli, U.S., and regional security or if it will further encourage the momentum of the Abraham Accord towards robust cooperation between Israel and the UAE.
Although the Israeli Premier has stated that the deal would not negate their QME—as long as the U.S. agrees to further enhance Israeli military capabilities—the deal could risk the transfer of advanced technology to adversaries, jeopardizing Israeli and American security. The UAE has security ties to both Russia and China, purchasing drones from China and a Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jet, the Pantsir S-1 missile defense system, and the Kornet-E anti-tank missile system from Russia. Although their security ties are limited, giving the UAE F-35’s makes U.S. advanced technology vulnerable to espionage and theft by China and/or Russia.
There is a delicate balance among the powers on either side of the Strait of Hormuz, and many argue that the sale could have the potential to initiate an arms race with Iran. In Iran’s eyes, the Abraham Accord is a step towards the formation of a bloc of countries that oppose Iran, and an advanced arms sale to one of those countries would certainly raise concern. Iran has been seeking to purchase stealth aircrafts from Russia and China, and an arms sale such as this could further motivate them to also acquire stealth aircrafts.
Additionally, the sale could be seen by China as a move by the U.S. to reassert themselves in the region to counter China’s increasing military and economic involvement. If China feels that their agenda in the region is threatened, they could be motivated to counter the U.S. reassertion and provide aircraft or weapons systems support to Iran.
On the other hand, if the sale is approved it could reinforce the momentum of the Abraham Accord towards not only non-aggression but cooperation between the two countries. A committed security relationship between the two is many paces down the road but more immediately the sale could encourage cooperation regarding issues of cybersecurity, defense systems, and intelligence sharing. Increasingly holistic cooperation between the two countries could also motivate broader technological and economic cooperation among the countries in support of the Abraham Accord, such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
The debate of whether to approve the sale or not is fraught with potential positive and negative consequences. However, in either outcome the Abraham Accord and the subsequent discussion of selling advanced weaponry to the UAE, represents that the region is beginning to be more open to normalization and potentially greater cooperation. This is momentum that a Biden administration should gracefully encourage.