Israel has decided it won’t be the dog in the manger if US President Donald Trump is so keen to sell F-35 stealth jets to the UAE. An understanding has been reached that the US will, as quid pro quo, “significantly upgrade Israel’s military capability” and ensure Israel retains its “qualitative military edge” over Arab states.
This leaps out of William Shakespeare’s play Merchant of Venice. Israel gets its pound of flesh from Uncle Sam. But there are other factors at work, too.
Evidently, Trump wants to close the F-35 sale and collect his kickback as quickly as possible. It’s family business. Son-in-law Jared Kushner had negotiated the Abraham Accord.
The US Congress is increasingly unhappy about weapon sales to Gulf states, and in a Joe Biden presidency, an arms embargo may even ensue. Hence the need to push the UAE deal through at breakneck speed.
Meanwhile, Israel also got a ‘bonus’ from the UAE — virtual consent to set up a full-fledged Mossad station in the Emirates. The extraordinary alacrity with which Israel demanded — and UAE meekly agreed — to a visa free travel regime has no other meaning than that Israeli spooks can now slip in and out of the Persian Gulf unnoticed. In normal curse, visa free travel comes at the fag-end of flourishing economic and business ties, and not to be front-loaded in a brand new relationship.
A Mossad regional station on Emirati soil will be hugely consequential because Israel is bent on destabilising Iran and overthrow Turkey’s president Recep Erdogan. Israel cannot tolerate any regional power with a potential to dwarf it in strategic capabilities.
The UAE was a key centre for the plotters of the 2016 US-backed coup attempt to overthrow Erdogan. Turkey’s air attache posted in the embassy in the UAE was a go-between. Erdogan had tried hard to extradite him to Ankara to stand trial for treason.
Equally, the UAE is an excellent staging post from where terrorist activities, especially political assassination, could be handled. The UAE is, historically, a playpen for the Tehran bazaar. Iran often channels its trade via Dubai. Iran could even be one of the UAE’s top ‘trading partners’. There is no better place on the planet than Dubai for the Mossad to monitor Iranian activities.
Time is the essence of the matter, as Iran is set to take a quantum jump in its growth trajectory once the 25-year pact with China comes through (possibly by March.) As for Erdogan, he is increasingly acting in defiance of the US regional strategies in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean, and there is a US-Israeli convergence here in regard of his support for the Hamas, which many regard as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Suffice to say, a Mossad regional station on Emirati soil will incrementally take over the reins of American security interests, as the expected US retrenchment from the Middle East accelerates.
Possibly, there is a US-Israel understanding that the Arab Sheikhs will only get a watered down version of the F-35. (The stealthier jet has different versions.)
However, another contradiction is appearing on the horizon. Trump has also reportedly received a similar request for F-35 jets from Qatar, a key ally who hosts the US Central Command Hqs. Conceivably, Erdogan prompted the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani to move in this direction. (The Emir has an old friendship with Trump too dating back to a priori history when POTUS was just a real estate developer and hotelier looking for business in the oases of the Arabian desert.)
But if the Emir pushes the F-35 envelope, Saudi Arabia and the UAE will try to block the deal. They are on ‘war path’ with Qatar which mentors the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, the existential enemy of the Gulf regimes. They won’t like it if Qatar neutralises their ‘air superiority’.
Besides, the Emir of Qatar and Turkey’s Recep Erdogan are as close as any two brothers can be through thick and thin. Both support the Brothers; Turkey keeps a military base in Qatar (which most likely derailed the coup attempt by Saudis and Emiratis in 2017 to overthrow the regime in Doha) and continues to be a provider of security for the regime; Qatar generously helps Turkey to maintain its financial buoyancy, which neutralises the US attempts to manipulate an economic crisis in Istanbul to stoke popular discontent against Erdogan and create unrest.
Above all, Turkey and Qatar keep friendly relations with Tehran — just as Kuwait and Oman — which disrupts the Saudi-Emirati-Israeli-US ploys to isolate Iran in its region and simply rubbishes the western hypothesis of a Sunni-Shia sectarian divide in regional politics in the Muslim Middle East.
The big question for regional security in the period ahead is how the arrival of the F-35 in the Persian Gulf would play on the vanities of the Emirati Sheikhs who harbour huge ambitions to become the number one regional power in the Middle East.
The UAE already has a military presence as far away as in Libya. It intervened in Yemen and currently occupies a strategic Yemeni island. It showed up in the Syrian conflict supporting al-Qaeda affiliates and other terrorist groups to overthrow the Assad government. It has links with Kurdish separatist groups. It has had close ties with the Taliban in Afghanistan. The UAE and Greece are building up close military ties, with Turkey in their crosshairs. The US promotes this strange relationship to counter Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Trump plans to sign the multi-billion dollar F-35 deal with the UAE by December. An estimated 12 jets could be sold. The aircraft currently costs between $94 million and $122 million per piece. But operating and maintaining the fleet is hugely expensive.
In a famous remark last year, the former US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan had commented that “this is the largest program in DoD history and the cost of sustainment (of F-35) is about the same cost as nuclear modernisation.”