When it came to choosing between the most advanced American fighter jets or China’s 5G technology, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) decided on 5G. After the United States refused to budge on technical requirements and “sovereign operational restrictions,” according to one Emirati official, the deal for up to fifty F-35s was canceled in December 2021.
The UAE’s position reveals the tough choices for smaller powers caught between the United States and China. As they shop for the prized jewels of the twenty-first century, including top military, communications, and health technologies, countries like the UAE will be forced to choose between state-of-the-art equipment sold by two very different countries.
As the outcome of the F-35 deal demonstrates, the United States is very particular about its data. “Even if the F-35 itself is not using this 5G network, if the UAE is embracing Huawei 5G technology and using it for ground stations, communications towers, on bases, then that is an opportunity for China to draw a lot of intelligence about the way the F-35 operates,” said Emily Harding, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in comments to C4ISRNET.
The risk then? “This is concerning because it is giving an adversary [China] a lot of insight into our highest-functioning airplane.” As Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters back in December, “These end-user requirements and protection of US defense equipment are universal, non-negotiable and nonspecific to the UAE.”
Having tossed the F-35 deal for now, the UAE has set out to demonstrate that it has more partners than the United States. In February, the country purchased twelve L15 stealth fighters from China. The UAE is also expecting a delivery of eighty Rafale F4 fighter jets from France later this decade. Of course, neither fighter is as good as the F-35, but the point was made: the UAE has other options, including China.
Cooperation between the UAE telecommunications industry and Huawei is deep. Emirati telecom company du inked a deal with Huawei to provide 5G network services back in October 2019, according to du’s chief technology officer, Saleem Alblooshi. Huawei showed off its capabilities last year in cooperation with du when it broadcast the UAE’s President’s Cycling Cup using 5G. Just a few weeks ago at the Mobile World Congress in Spain, Huawei signed an agreement with both du and Emirati telecom firm Etisalat to jointly provide 5G edge computing services, which involves moving “traffic and services from a centralised cloud to the edge of the network and closer to the customer,” Juniper networks reported. Etisalat and Huawei also successfully tested fiber-to-the-room, a fiber optic-based networking solution for hotels and businesses, in a multi-story building in February.
The technological partnership doesn’t end there. The two countries established joint laboratories for researching telecommunications and artificial intelligence, including the 5G and Internet of Things Joint Open Lab and the China-Emirates Science and Technology Innovation Laboratory (CSET). The CSET lab recently showed off China’s Golden Eagle CR500 helicopter drones and MR40 unmanned aircraft. The UAE plans to add at least ten CR500s and twenty MR40s to its current fleet of Wing Loong I and II drones, which were originally based on the American MQ-1 Predator drone.
The UAE is using Huawei to build its own high-tech, indigenous telecommunications services, not replace them. Referring to a test after the 5G edge computing agreement was signed, Khalid Murshed, chief technology and information officer at Etisalat, said, “The success of this testing activity will support UAE industries and the government sector in achieving their digital transformational objectives.”
Other countries have long been involved in the UAE’s communications sector. Etisalat also “is extending its partnership with Amazon Web Services to address the growing demand for digitalisation in key economic industries, including oil and gas, manufacturing and logistics.” France’s Thales Group, which recently created “a 100% Emirati company whose objective is to support the country’s aspirations to develop national industrial autonomy,” describes itself as “a long-term partner of the UAE armed forces.” Thales Group also has several educational partnerships with Emirati universities.
The UAE’s cooperation with Huawei, like its relationship with other international firms, is a means to an end. That doesn’t mean concerns about data security aren’t substantive: in a highly globalized world, data security is never guaranteed. At some point, the United States will either decide the F-35’s data is too valuable to fall into Chinese hands and decide to limit the Emiratis to lower-tier products, or it will reach a compromise. Andreas Kreig, a senior lecturer at King’s College London, said, “It is more likely that the Biden administration will come out with a meaningless concession for the Emiratis to be able to publicly say why they allow the deal to go through. This may include creating the U.S.’s own little hub of data companies in the UAE to compete with Chinese companies.”
Alternatively, the alleged concern over Chinese-Emirati ties is a distraction from the real issue: the Biden administration’s disagreement with Emirati foreign and domestic policies. Under the Trump administration, the United States was willing to sell F-35s to the UAE even as it waged a determined campaign across the globe to convince countries not to use Huawei. What’s changed is the party in control of the United States, and if the Emiratis are unable to convince the Biden administration to sell them the F-35s, they will have to wait for another chance in 2024.
Most UAE-China cooperation is economic, but increased military, intelligence, or political ties are worth watching for. The UAE is unlikely to pursue abrupt increases in institutional and operational military ties with the Chinese because of its longstanding participation in U.S.-led exercises and shared security interests with countries such as Greece, Egypt, and Israel. However, that history may not prevent it from cooperating with the Chinese behind the scenes. According to the Wall Street Journal sources, the F-35 deal may have ended due to the Emiratis’ willingness to permit the Chinese to operate a military facility near Abu Dhabi, likely for intelligence-gathering purposes or to set the foundation for military access. The UAE hosts approximately 3,500 U.S. soldiers, and according to a Congressional Research Service report, UAE ports host more U.S. Navy ships than any other foreign port in the world.
The UAE is a good target for foreign military and intelligence services. In fact, if any intelligence relationship is growing quickly, it’s the relationship between the UAE and Israel. In the wake of the U.S.-brokered Abraham Accords, the two countries are sharing Iranian-related intelligence, including information related to Hezbollah cyberattacks. It would not be surprising if Israel and the UAE were also sharing intelligence on how to win over the Americans.
Because the UAE doesn’t have the military power to significantly alter foreign policy outcomes alone, it relies on its status as a high-tech, international economic hub to gain diplomatic leverage. Yet, while the United States provides most of the UAE’s fighter jets and air defenses, the UAE also knows the United States is not the only game in town.
Rhett Hatch is a master’s candidate in International Affairs at Texas A&M University. His work focuses on international relations, economics, and cybersecurity. You can reach Rhett or follow him on Twitter @hatch_rhett