Author : Kabir Taneja

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Oct 26, 2020

The F-35 saga in West Asia shows at some level what America’s dealings with the region is going to be.

Abraham’s F-35: West Asia’s new peace and the politics around a fighter aircraft

There are multiple narratives and strategic calculations currently in development around the Abraham Accords signed between Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain in Washington DC under the auspice of President Donald Trump on 16 September 2020. The deals officially brought in diplomatic relations between Abu Dhabi and Jerusalem into the public mainstream after years of clandestine and back-door diplomacy.

However, while the Abraham Accords streamline one of the major political and diplomatic fractures in the Gulf, the agreement comes with its very own set of challenges for not just regional politics but Israel’s critical infrastructure of maintaining a significant military edge over its opponents, which despite the agreements, includes the UAE. Soon after 16 September, as Trump announced that other nations were also prepared to normalise relations with Israel, America’s premiere stealth fighter weapon system, the Lockheed Martin F-35 ‘Lightning II’, which was delivered to Israel in December 2016 and has already seen combat by striking targets in Syria became the centre piece of Israel– UAE politics.

Soon after the Accords were signed, UAE publicly pushed its agenda of attaining the F-35 as well for its own air force.

According to an understanding between Israel and the US, Washington has to make sure that Israel maintains a Qualitative Military Edge (QME) in the region, both with regard to its foes and allies. This edge has been critical to Israel’s survivability, employing more advanced fire power than anyone else by a significant margin. However, soon after the Accords were signed, UAE publicly pushed its agenda of attaining the F-35 as well for its own air force. This posed a direct challenge to Israel’s air supremacy, and the first instance of transactional diplomacy and deal making from Abu Dhabi that the Trump presidency itself has become infamous for.

While UAE’s F-35 requirement threatened to throw a ner into the regional peace process, a ‘third front’ to the saga was also in play, that of Sudan’s accession into the normalisation process with Israel. However, there was transactional diplomacy at play here as well, as Sudan, one of the poorest nations in the world, agreed to pay the US$ 335 million as compensation for its alleged role in harbouring Al Qaeda over the bombing of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. Sudan has since then till a certain extent reformed, clamping down on extremism in the country. However, it still harbours pockets of Islamist elements. In fact, some Indian pro-ISIS cases were advised to reach Syria and Iraq via Sudan as per court documents, as trafficking routes used by Islamists still remain operational there.

While some speculated that the Sudan normalisation agreement was the exchange transaction, it is highly unlikely that Khartoum normalising relations with Israel is a strong enough card to play that would allow UAE to obtain the same critical technology as Israel from Washington.

Amidst all these developments, Israel has come out and said that it would in fact not veto the US selling F-35s to Abu Dhabi. This announcement surprised many, as multiple talks between the Israelis and the US over the former’s promised military advantage came into play. While some speculated that the Sudan normalisation agreement was the exchange transaction, it is highly unlikely that Khartoum normalising relations with Israel is a strong enough card to play that would allow UAE to obtain the same critical technology as Israel from Washington.

Moreover, the Sudan deal is not as simple as it may appear on the surface of it. While Khartoum has exchanged money in return for getting delisted from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism, it has not committed to opening an embassy in Israel as of yet, and has said that the normalisation is subject to the approval of the country’s legislative council, which has remained unformed for nearly two years. Exchanging money for delisting was politically much less precarious for Sudan’s Prime Minister, Abdalla Hamdok, who showered the president with platitudes on Twitter for the agreement, a playbook most world leaders have understood the rules of when dealing with Trump’s White House.

Hamdok, for the sum of money paid, rushed into such an agreement arguably thinking such a deal would not be made available if Trump was to lose the election next month. And even if a Joe Biden presidency was to rescind the agreement, UAE, Israel and Bahrain would push Sudan’s case through making sure it remains off the US terror listing. While achieving this, Sudan, Israel, UAE and Bahrain, who all would want a second term for Trump, collectively handed a narrative victory to the president who continues to maintain that up to nine more countries are in waiting to normalise relations with Jerusalem. Whether these measures will have any effect in how the elections in the US unfold, they certainly add weight to Trump’s case on the foreign policy metric, which the president has used in his rallies regularly over the past few weeks.

Doha’s ongoing crisis with the UAE and Saudi Arabia has pushed the small but rich Gulf nation closer towards Turkey and Iran.

However, the F-35 saga does not finish with Israel’s acceptance of UAE purchasing the aircraft. Within the few weeks where all of the above has unfolded, Qatar, home to US’s biggest military base in West Asia, has also reportedly made a formal request to purchase the F-35. This complicates the issue even further. Doha’s ongoing crisis with the UAE and Saudi Arabia has pushed the small but rich Gulf nation closer towards Turkey and Iran. With Iran being the principle threat perception for the Trump administration and the country seen as the largest threat by Israel, UAE and Saudi Arabia alike, Turkey’s recent aggressive overtures in Syria and the wider West Asian region have placed Ankara as a major aggressor as well. Between Tehran and Ankara, the Gulf also fears that a change of guard to Biden in the White House could mean a return of the Iran nuclear deal which Trump exited from in 2018.

Although Doha has reportedly asked for the F-35, not all quarters of Israel, the original beneficiary of the fighter jet platform seem to buy into Washington’s restrain in selling the aircraft and the technology. “I have no doubt that if they (Qatar) want it and willing to pay, sooner or later they will get it,” Israel’s Energy Minister and cabinet member Yuval Steinitz was recently quoted as saying. This thinking prevailing in Jerusalem’s senior leadership is striking, and a significant departure from previous levels of exclusivity that Israel has enjoyed with the US.

US analysts have highlighted that selling F-35 to the UAE could bring the state-of-the-art tech close to Chinese access as well, a country known to replicate Western technologies via practice of stealing trade and industry secrets.

At least some of these concerns arguably come from the fact that in the past, countries such as the UAE have looked towards China to purchase armed drones after American refusal to sell the same. US analysts have highlighted that selling F-35 to the UAE could bring the state-of-the-art tech close to Chinese access as well, a country known to replicate Western technologies via practice of stealing trade and industry secrets. The Chinese Wing Loong drone that UAE reportedly obtained in 2016 is after all a replica of the American MQ-9 ‘Reaper’ drone, which the US refused to sell to Abu Dhabi previously. The US administration ultimately “looks out for its interests,” Steinitz added, and those interests today are for the peace arrangements to be in place one way or another. The concern however remains is that if UAE ultimately bought Chinese or Russian equipment, why would it not purchase Russian or Chinese stealth fighter jets if the F-35 is made unavailable? This line of argument could be further applied to Qatar as well.

The F-35 saga in West Asia shows at some level what America’s dealings with the region is going to be. Interests will be redefined, and how Washington looks at its own security blanket in the region will continue to be scrutinised be it a second Trump term or Biden’s first as president. The idea that the US supports its allies, but the allies would have to take care of their own regional security will gain further weightage over the next few years leading to what could be a tectonic shift in practice of diplomacy, strategy and tactical policy amongst West Asia’s power centres.

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Author

Kabir Taneja

Kabir Taneja

Kabir Taneja is a Fellow with Strategic Studies programme. His research focuses on Indias relations with West Asia specifically looking at the domestic political dynamics ...

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