It isn’t exactly written in stone yet that the United Arabs Emirates will receive the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter—in part because Joe Biden’s foreign policy advisor, Tony Blinken, had suggested that the advanced aircraft was only meant to be supplied to Israel and not its potential rivals.
While the Trump administration acknowledged that the UAE was more likely to receive the jets after it normalized relations with Israel earlier this year, the White House maintained the sale of the jets wasn’t part of the peace process.
It now appears that even if the stealth aircraft was offered to Saudi Arabia as part of a deal to normalize relations with the Jewish state it wouldn’t matter. According to reports from the Middle East Monitor, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman refused to make any political concessions, including signing any formal normalization agreement with Israel in exchange for the kingdom obtaining the jets from the United States.
It was also reported that bin Salman would only submit an official request to purchase the jets via official channels and with full transparency. Bin Salman added that he would not seek to obtain the fighter aircraft as part of a backroom deal.
Saudi Arabia has worked through official channels in the past, most notably in the 1980s, when it had acquired Boeing F-15 multi-role strike fighters and Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft in a much publicized deal. The sale was part of the 1981–86 “Peace Sentinel” program, which was meant to help provide the Saudi Air Force with an advanced warning platform to protect sensitive targets along the Persian Gulf, particularly from nearby Iranian air bases. Under the program Saudi Arabia purchased five E-3A AWACS.
It provoked an intense debate in the United States regarding the national security concerns of Saudi Arabia but also Israel. It sparked objection from prominent U.S. lawmakers as well as from Jewish lobby groups. While the sale went through, to address the concerns of Israel, the aircraft were equipped specifically for the defensive needs of the Persian Gulf and Red Sea areas only.
One other factor is that Saudi Arabia’s bin Salman has only even recently noted that his government is studying the need to obtain more advanced fighter jets. The biggest threat to Saudi Arabia could be from Iran, which lacks anything comparable to the F-35.
No Reason to Fear Israel
While it is true that the Israeli Air Force operates the F-35I Adir, the specially-modified Israeli-only version of the Lockheed Martin aircraft, Saudi Arabia hasn’t been involved in open conflict with Israel since 1973’s Yom Kippur War.
Even then it wasn’t a direct belligerent and only sent expeditionary forces. The only time the two nations have actually fought one another was when Saudi Arabia was a member of the Arab League and took up arms during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Although there have been times of tension, since Arab Spring the government of Israel has largely seen the Saudi government as a guarantor of stability.
More recently, as Iran has been seen to be the larger threat, there have been reports that Saudi Arabia has tested its ability to stand down air defenses so as to allow Israel to fly sorties to strike Iran. Both nations deny this, but the two countries are now closer than ever to establishing formal relations. If anything the fear of Iran could move Saudi Arabia to establish those relations with Israel, which could have the weapons to strike Iran—and that could be better than the Saudis buying their own aircraft.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.
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