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

Democrats in Congress had accused the Trump White House of rushing through an arms deal to the UAE weeks before Biden was inaugurated.
An F-35 Lightning II approaches for the first time at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., in July 2011.
An F-35 Lightning II approaches for the first time at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., in July 2011.Samuel King Jr. / U.S. Air Force via AP file

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

The arms sale for the UAE came after it 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 wants 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 Tuesday.

Blinken 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 what we're doing at this moment," he said.

The State Department said earlier that the hold on foreign arms sales was "routine" and that it 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 UAE worth about $23.37 billion. The package included 50 radar-evading F-35A fighter aircraft estimated to be worth $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.

Blinken indicated in his confirmation hearing last week that the Biden administration would examine promises the U.S. made to the UAE 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.

However, he 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 UAE, accusing the Trump administration of trying to constrain the next president by pushing the deal through before he was inaugurated.

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

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

He said that "the F-35 package is much more than selling military hardware to a partner" and that it would bolster regional security.

"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 they expressed outrage when the Trump administration invoked a rarely used legal authority to bypass Congress in 2019. Several newly appointed officials in the Biden administration have criticized 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, head of humanitarian policy at Oxfam America.