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US approves millions in arms sales to Saudi Arabia and UAE

Proposed sale comes as US struggles to address Houthi threats to maritime security in the Gulf where global energy supplies pass
Saudi F-15 fighter jet landing at the Khamis Mushayt military airbase in Saudi Arabia, 16 November 2015.
Saudi F-15 fighter jet landing at Khamis Mushayt military air base in Saudi Arabia, on 16 November 2015 (AFP)

The Biden administration approved on Monday a $583m arms sale to Saudi Arabia, as tensions rise in the Gulf following a series of Houthi maritime attacks.

The State Department said the sale included RE-3A Tactical Airborne Surveillance System Aircraft Modernisation and related equipment.

Saudi Arabia had requested to purchase equipment to modernise its TASS aircraft acquired from Boeing in the 1980s. The kingdom wanted seven GPS/INS security systems, communications hardware, and systems for signals intelligence among other equipment.

“This proposed sale will support the foreign policy goals and national security objectives of the United States by improving Saudi Arabia’s surveillance capability to counter current and future regional threats,” the Pentagon said in a statement.

Along with the sale to Saudi Arabia, the Biden administration said it had approved the $85m sale of 18 AN/TPQ-50 radar systems to the United Arab Emirates. 

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The Biden administration notified Congress of both sales. Congress needs to give the final approval.

The US said the sale would protect critical infrastructure and high-value civilian assets as well as military installations from rocket and artillery fire, along with unmanned aerial vehicles.

“The UAE is a vital US partner for political stability and economic progress in the Middle East,” the Pentagon said in a statement, adding the “sale will support the foreign policy and national security of the United States by helping to improve the security of an important regional partner.”

Both sales come as the Middle East is engulfed by the war in Gaza between Israel and armed Palestinian groups led by Hamas.

Before the conflict erupted, the US had been working to normalise ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel. US officials say Hamas’s 7 October attack on southern Israel was in part designed to derail that process.

The UAE normalised ties with Israel in 2020 as part of the US-brokered agreement named the Abraham Accords.

Houthis ramp up maritime attacks 

The UAE and Saudi Arabia have joined other Arab and Muslim majority countries calling for a ceasefire to the war in Gaza, putting them at odds with the Biden administration’s continued refusal to back a halt in fighting.

Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are both concerned that Israel’s invasion of the Gaza Strip could lead to a regional escalation of violence. Both countries have recently tried to mend fences with their rival Iran as they aim to focus on growing their economies.

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On Sunday, Iran-aligned Houthis in Yemen attacked three commercial vessels and a US warship in the Red Sea, in what they said was in response to Israel’s attack on Gaza. The attacks have heightened fears about threats to international shipping in the Gulf, including oil and gas.

US and western officials have privately warned shipping executives to brace for further attacks, as the Biden administration struggles with a strategy to deter the Houthis. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been trying to extricate themselves from the Yemen war, which has experienced a relative pause in fighting.

The announcement of the proposed sales also comes as Russian President Vladimir Putin prepares to visit Saudi Arabia and the UAE on Wednesday, his first such visit since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

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