A secret push by President Donald Trump’s senior adviser Jared Kushner to sell advanced arms — including F-35 stealth fighter jets — to the United Arab Emirates has caused confusion and frustration among agencies and congressional committees that would normally be involved in such a sale but have been left in the dark.
Kushner is supporting the administration’s discussions with the UAE about the potential advanced arms sale, which have been led by the NSC Senior Director for the Middle East, Miguel Correa, a senior administration official said.
The tight hold on details about these discussions has created confusion across the US government, two State Department officials and multiple congressional aides tell CNN. Trump said the potential sale was “under review” during a press conference on Wednesday. He also said the Emirates have the funds to pay for the military hardware.
Expecting closer cooperation
On Thursday, Anwar Gargash, the UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, said at an Atlantic Council event that “the UAE has indicated that it wants F-35s. The first time we made this request was 6 years ago. We ought to get them. It should be easier to get them.” Gargash added that discussions about the F-35 are not connected to the deal with Israel
The UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs also said in a statement Thursday that “we have been flying the most advanced model of the US-made F-16 for more than 15 years. Facing new threats and more sophisticated adversaries, the UAE will continue to upgrade and improve our air defense capabilities. The F-35 has been part of these plans for more than six years.”
“With the signing of the new accord and the added assurances it provides, we expect closer security cooperation among all three countries including on air defense and systems,” the statement continued.
The New York Times reported Wednesday that the Emirati military was given a classified briefing by administration officials on the F-35 fighter jet in recent weeks.
Reports of a possible arms deal surfaced Tuesday when one of Israel’s leading newspapers alleged there was a “secret clause” in Israel’s deal to normalize relations with the UAE — one that would allow the UAE to buy billions of dollars in advanced military hardware from the US, including drones, F-35 stealth fighters and other weaponry.
The story raised hackles in Israel because of the potential threat to Israel’s military superiority in the region. Israel has long opposed sales of strategic weapons systems to other countries in the Middle East and under US law, any arms sales must take Israel’s qualitative military edge into account.
It is unclear if there is a direct correlation between the discussions over the possible arms sale and the agreement which was inked last week, but Trump administration officials have indicated that the agreement paved the way for these discussions.
Kushner was directly involved in discussion with the Emirates and the Israelis in the lead up to the agreement last week, he told reporters. State Dept watchdog finds Saudi arms sale was legal but risks to civilians weren’t fully assessed. The National Security Council did not reply to a request for comment.
Any sale involving the F-35 would require serious scrutiny from Congress, said two congressional aides. But relevant committees in Congress have not been notified of an arms sale to UAE involving F-35s and there is no unofficial review underway either, the aides said. There is frustration among members of both parties about the lack of communication from the administration on these discussions, the aides added.
A Democratic Senate aide told CNN that Congress “would almost certainly” attempt to block a sale of F-35s to the UAE with a resolution of disapproval if the Trump administration disregards Israel’s objections and moves forward with the deal.
“F-35s are really another level of technology that threaten Israel’s qualitative military edge… so it is a big deal,” the aide added. Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, Ellen Lord, referred all questions about the F-35 and UAE to the State Department when asked about the issue Thursday.
The State Department office that handles arms sales has not been formally been notified of a request for the purchase from the Emirates, which is required to trigger a formal review process, State Department officials tell CNN.
Arms sales take years to come to fruition, particularly ones that involve such advanced defence systems. Earlier this month a group of Trump administration national security officials visited the UAE. Discussions focused on the UAE relationship with China, said a source familiar with the trip. It is unclear if there were also sideline discussions about the possible arms sale.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said in a statement Tuesday that Israel repeatedly raised concerns about the possibility of advanced arms sales to “any country in the Middle East” in the weeks before the normalisation deal was announced. Trump announced that agreement, heralding it as a “significant step towards building a more peaceful, secure, and prosperous Middle East.”