Middle East

UAE lobbies to lift arms restrictions

A GlobalEye aircraft, manufactured by Saab Technologies, on static design during the Dubai Airshow.

DUBAI: The United Arab Emirates has lobbied several European countries to ease restrictions on weapons exports following a series of strikes in the Gulf this year, according to three diplomats and two other people with knowledge of the discussions. Emirati officials have in the discussions with European counterparts stressed the Gulf state’s need to defend itself while highlighting the UAE’s drawdown of troops in Yemen, the five people with knowledge of the discussions said. The restrictions had been imposed because of concerns that weapons could be used in the conflict in Yemen between an Arab military coalition, that includes the UAE, and the Iran-aligned Houthi movement.

The lobbying efforts around UAE’s defenses, details of which the Gulf state keeps closely guarded on grounds of national security, have resulted in some success notably in Germany. Berlin in October told officials involved in the process that it had granted an export license for German-made generators used to power U.S. Patriot batteries protecting UAE cities and airports, two of the people said.

The push by Emirati officials began after tanker attacks off the Gulf state’s coast this summer and intensified following an assault on oil plants in neighboring Saudi Arabia in mid-September, according to the five people. Washington has blamed the attacks on the tankers and the Saudi oil plants on Iran.

Tehran has publicly denied any involvement in the attacks.

The UAE government’s media office and Foreign Ministry did not respond to requests for comment. The UAE began withdrawing troops in June and a small number remain in strategic locations.

The UAE has also tightened security at home. Emirati authorities have expanded coast guard patrols and are monitoring ships and their documentation more carefully, two UAE-based sources said.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE have come under harsh criticism in the West over Yemen, where the conflict has resulted in the death of tens of thousands of people and pushed millions to the brink of famine. That includes from Germany, which in March 2018 had imposed a ban on exporting weapons to parties directly involved in the Yemen war.

Leading the Emirati effort with Germany was Sultan al-Jaber, the UAE’s special envoy for Germany and chief executive of state-run Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, according to the five people with knowledge of the discussions. 

Jaber and other UAE officials have raised concerns with German officials about the ban over the course of at least five meetings in Berlin and Abu Dhabi since May, said the five people.

“The moment the UAE pulled out of Yemen, it was a game-changer” for the German government, a person who had been briefed by German and UAE officials on the negotiations said.

Germany is pleased with UAE’s retreat from Yemen and also views the Gulf state as playing a more constructive role in Libya, several German government officials said.

The German chancellor’s office referred questions to the Economy Ministry. “The government ... makes choices on permits for arms exports on a case-by-case basis and in light of the situation after careful assessments that take into account foreign policy and security considerations,” the Economy Ministry said in a statement.

Reuters didn’t receive responses to questions sent to Jaber via the UAE government media office.

Swedish defense firm Saab AB pressed Stockholm on Abu Dhabi’s behalf to secure licenses for GlobalEye surveillance jets, equipped with a multi-sensor early warning system, according to another diplomat.

The diplomat said Saab sought the licenses, which would enable them to export two additional jets, after Sweden in January tightened criteria for new export licences to countries involved in the Yemen war. The tighter criteria meant licenses to sell weapons to the UAE would be more closely scrutinized by the Inspectorate of Strategic Products, the government agency responsible for arms exports.

Saab, in a Nov. 19 press release, described the UAE’s intention to purchase two new surveillance jets as an “amendment” to a previous contract that pre-dated the January agreement. It said the new purchases would be worth $1 billion.

Saab’s head and Chief Executive Micael Johansson, told Reuters that the company had secured a license this autumn to export the two surveillance jets to the UAE, with the first delivery of the five due early next year.

It was unclear what prompted the government to award the licenses. “I don’t know exactly how Swedish authorities and politicians assessed that factor but of course it helps if the [Yemen] conflict is going in the right direction,” Johansson said, speaking on the sidelines of the Dubai Airshow on Nov. 19.

The Swedish government declined to comment. An ISP spokesman declined to comment on whether a license had been granted, citing secrecy rules. Six of the members of Sweden’s export control council contacted by Reuters declined to comment.

The UAE has been unsuccessful in Norway, where it has been trying to buy small drones but is prevented by an export ban in place since January 2018, according to one of the five people with knowledge of the discussions.

The UAE has had in-person discussions with Norwegian officials on several occasions since May, citing their changed policy on Yemen, but has not been able to repeat the success they had with Germany, the person said.

Norway did not comment on discussions with the UAE. In a statement, State Secretary Audun Halvorsen said: “In December 2017, Norway decided to suspend all valid export licenses for category A material (weapons and ammunition) to the United Arab Emirates New export licenses for category A material to the UAE will not be granted. The threshold for denying B-material and dual-use goods for military use to countries taking part in military operations in Yemen has also been lowered further.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 13, 2019, on page 5.

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