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US senators introduce weapons oversight bill as Biden advances $23bn UAE arms sale

The bill would ensure congressional review of international weapons deals and protect against sensitive technology being sold to powers hostile to US
The UAE is set to become the second Middle Eastern country, after Israel, to acquire the US-made F-35 warplanes (Reuters/File photo)

Two senior Democratic senators have introduced a bill that would underline Congress oversight of international weapons deals, days after the Biden administration announced it would move forward with a $23bn arms sale to the United Arab Emirates. 

Senators Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Dianne Feinstein, a senior member of the intelligence committee, introduced the legislation on Friday. 

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Dubbed the "Secure F-35 Exports Act of 2020," the bill would apply to the sale of sophisticated arms and technology to all non-Nato countries, with the exception of Israel, Australia, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand. 

Among other things, it would bar the sale of the F-35s, which can take years after a deal is agreed, unless any president makes detailed certifications to Congress that the critical technology would not fall into the wrong hands or otherwise compromise advanced technology.

"We must enact protections to ensure the incredibly sensitive technology of these aircraft is not compromised by powers hostile to the United States, including making sure the UAE pulls back from its burgeoning relationship with China and other US competitors," Menendez said in a statement provided to Reuters.

The $23bn arms sale to the United Arab Emirates, which was initially approved under the Trump administration, includes the sale of 50 US-made F-35 warplanes, in addition to over a dozen armed drones and other advanced military technology. 

Wildly unpopular among Democrats 

While the State Department said the shipments to the UAE would not take place until 2025 or later, if the UAE does acquire the warplanes it will become the second country in the Middle East - following Israel - to be approved for F-35 purchases. 

Meanwhile, the senators' bill would also reiterate the federal requirement that all weapons sales, particularly to Middle Eastern countries, preserve Israel's qualitative military edge in the region. Under the legislation, any regional sale of warplanes must come with assurances that the aircraft would not be used in operations harmful to Israel's security.

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The legislation is just one of many measures expected to come out of Congress in relation to the $23bn weapons sale, which has been wildly unpopular among Democrats. Lawmakers have repeatedly criticised the UAE for its role in Yemen, in the Saudi-led coalition's bombings of market places, funerals, weddings and hospitals. 

On Wednesday, the Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee said US lawmakers remain concerned over the go-ahead on the sale, which was pushed through during president Donald Trump's last hours in office. 

Chairman Gregory Meeks warned that concern over the sale remains high, but expressed relief that the shipment was not set to take place for at least another four years, giving "ample time for Congress to review whether these transfers should go forward and what restrictions and conditions would be imposed".  

In December, nearly every Democrat in the Senate voted to block the $23bn sale, but their efforts fell short as Republicans, who supported the deal, held the majority. 

Critics of the weapons deal have slammed the Biden administration for moving forward with the agreement despite opposition within his own party.