Trump’s UAE Arms Sale Means More Slaughter in Yemen

Photograph Source: Julien Harneis from Sana’a, Yemen – CC BY 2.0

The Trump Administration has approved a $23.37 billion arms sale to the United Arab Emirates. A November 10 statement from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says that the UAE needs the weapons in order to “defend itself against heightened threats from Iran.” That sounds better than admitting that the UAE will use the weapons to kill innocent people in Yemen.

The UAE belongs to a military coalition led by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia which is waging a genocidal war on Yemen with the help of US arms. The Saudi-led aggression began in March 2015 after Houthi rebels ousted Yemeni interim president and Saudi ally Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. Seeking to restore Hadi, the coalition went to war against the Houthis but is indifferent to who it kills. The coalition makes no distinction between combatants and civilians—a violation of international humanitarian law. One hundred thousand Yemenis have died. Some of those deaths were a direct result of coalition air strikes. Others resulted from hunger and disease following on the coalition blockade of Yemen and the coalition’s deliberate targeting of civilian infrastructure used in food production and medical care—war crimes. There was already an epidemic of cholera in Yemen at the time Covid-19 struck. The United Nations calls Yemen the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”

Under the $23 billion sale, the UAE will receive up to 50 F-35 Lightning II warplanes, armed aerial drones, and air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions. The sale is made possible by the so-called Abraham Accords. William D. Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy writes that if President Donald Trump, who helped broker the agreement, “had been honest for a change, he would have dubbed those Abraham Accords the ‘Arms Sales Accords.’” Impeding the sale to the UAE was a long-standing US commitment not to impair Israel’s “qualitative military edge” over its Middle East rivals. The Abraham Accords removed this obstacle. Under the Abraham Accords, signed by Israel, the UAE, and the US on August 13, the UAE agreed to normalize relations with Israel, while Israel gave the nod to the US arms transfer to the UAE.

Enter Congress

Congress has attempted to stymie Trump’s Middle East arms sales in the past, particularly after the Saudi murder of dissident Saudi journalist and US resident Jamal Khashoggi on October 2, 2018. On May 24, 2019, Trump and Pompeo circumvented Congressional opposition to an arms sale to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Jordan by declaring a phony national emergency.[1]

Trump cited imaginary increased tension with Iran to justify the emergency declaration, but the truth is that Trump loves arms sales. I mean really loves them. At a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, on March 20, 2018, Trump crowed about a $110 billion US arms sale to the Saudis (the bulk of which was negotiated under President Barack Obama). Trump told reporters: “Saudi Arabia is a very wealthy nation and they’re going to give the United States some of that wealth, hopefully, in the form of jobs, in the form of the purchase of the finest military equipment anywhere in the world.”

The American jobs Trump is talking about exist principally in Trump’s mind. President Trump likes to spew wild figures about the number of US jobs arms sales create. The reality is that the US defense sector produces relatively few jobs. Vox‘s Alexis Fernǻndez Campbell writes that “private-sector defense workers make up less than 0.5 percent of the total US labor force, and that includes every person whose job depends directly on the sale or production of airplanes, tanks, bombs, and services for the entire US military.”

If not workers, who benefits from US arms sales? Do we need to ask? The answer is obscenely wealthy merchants of death like Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, Raytheon, and Boeing. William Hartung points out that US corporations control “nearly half” of the arms market in the Middle East.

Will Congress block the sale to the UAE? Some Democratic lawmakers would like to; they object to the Trump Administration’s effort to ram through the deal in its closing days. However, some Democratic Congressional aides question whether Democratic efforts would receive enough Republican support to block the deal. It will be up to the incoming Biden Administration to cancel the sale.

Enter Biden

President Barack Obama took the US into the war on the side of the coalition as a sop to the Sunni countries who opposed Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. Obama got the US into the war. Obama’s vice president can get the US out, but will he? Biden is no dove. As a member of the Senate, Biden pushed hard for the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. During his presidential run, Biden announced that he would end US assistance to the Saudi-led coalition. Is Biden’s conversion sincere?

Biden will have the power to take the US out of the war on his first day in the Oval Office. Hassan El-Tayyab of the Friends Committee on National Legislation says that Biden could issue an executive order terminating US intelligence sharing with the coalition, logistical support, and the transfer of spare parts needed for Saudi warplanes. Biden could impose rigorous conditions on sales of arms to coalition members.

That could be enough to end the war. William Hartung observes that “None of the key players in today’s most devastating wars in the Middle East produce their own weaponry, which means that imports from the U.S. and other suppliers are the true fuel sustaining those conflicts.” Dr. Shireen Al-Adeimi, a Yemeni American activist who teaches at Michigan State University, says that “Saudi Arabia is utterly and completely incompetent.” They cannot repair or maintain their own aircraft. The US even trains Saudi pilots.[2] The US, not the coalition, chooses the coalition’s targets. According to Al-Ademi, the US guides the coalition “every step of the way.” Without the US, she says, the Saudis and Emiratis would be incapable of causing the massive destruction they have in Yemen.

Still, doubts persist about Biden. Biden can end the war, but will he? It is not encouraging that one third of Biden’s Pentagon transition team is made up of persons from organizations which take money from arms manufacturers, including General Dynamics, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, and Lockheed Martin. This fact shows how little influence progressives can expect to have in a Biden Administration. Progressives must hold Biden’s feet to the fire on Yemen. Let’s hope we’re not the ones who get burned.


1) On May 15, 2020, President Trump fired Steve Linick, the State Department Inspector General who was investigating the legality of the sale.

2) On December 6, 2019, a Saudi Royal Air Force pilot trainee murdered three Americans at the Pensacola naval air base in Florida. It was discovered later that the Saudi trainee had pledged fealty to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Charles Pierson is a lawyer and a member of the Pittsburgh Anti-Drone Warfare Coalition. E-mail him at