Brian Dooley is a senior adviser at Human Rights First.
Last week, Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warning that the United States “may be obligated by law to terminate all arms sales to the [United Arab Emirates].” Menendez’s move showed that the time has come for Washington to launch a radical overhaul of its relationship with Abu Dhabi.
Menendez’s query follows fresh revelations that high-tech U.S. antitank missiles sold to the UAE have ended up in the hands of Libyan rebel forces fighting to overthrow the U.S.-supported government in Tripoli. That same government has just accused the UAE of using a U.S.-made jet to bomb a migrant center in Libya, killing at least 53 people. In 2014, the Pentagon said the UAE had secretly bombed Libya, much to the surprise and annoyance of U.S. officials.
The UAE currently stands accused of supplying al-Qaeda-linked militias in Yemen with U.S.-made weapons, and of supporting the military junta that has been violently repressing pro-democratic forces in Sudan. All this shows that Abu Dhabi is a profoundly unreliable ally. Yet, the UAE has largely escaped the scrutiny finally imposed on Saudi Arabia for similar misdeeds. That needs to change.
In recent months, congressional critics of Saudi Arabia have grown increasingly vocal over that country’s disastrous war in Yemen and the premeditated murder of Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Yet the essential role played by the UAE in Yemen and in other grievous human rights violations goes largely unnoticed.
Earlier this month, a bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation prompted by the Trump administration’s attempt to short-circuit congressional oversight of 22 arms transfers via a dubious “emergency” claim. The bill is snappily titled The Saudi Arabia False Emergencies (SAFE) Act, and makes no reference to the United Arab Emirates. Yet 13 of those 22 “Saudi involve the UAE. The weapons involved include hundreds more antitank missiles of the kind diverted to Libyan rebels, along with Apache helicopters and semiautomatic rifles.
Resolutions barring these arms transfers were passed by the Senate on June 20, and similar action is likely in the House. A vocal supporter of arms sales to autocrats, President Trump has already indicated he’ll veto the bills.
Trump has said this even though the UAE-Saudi coalition has dropped U.S.-made bombs on civilians in Yemen — in violation of international law — and even though an al-Qaeda-linked group in Yemen supported by the UAE has obtained U.S.-made armored vehicles. The president has said this also despite credible claims that UAE authorities run secret detention and torture facilities in Yemen.
Recent reports indicate that UAE’s leaders may be trying to extricate themselves from Yemen; the government in Abu Dhabi announced on Monday that it plans to withdraw. They know that that the humanitarian and human-rights catastrophe they’ve created makes for bad public relations. Even so, the UAE should also be getting attention for its massive violations of human rights both at home and abroad.
As is the case in Saudi Arabia, prisons in the United Arab Emirates hold dozens of peaceful activists convicted in sham trials and subjected to torture. Moreover, the two governments often work in concert. Last year, authorities in the UAE seized women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul before handing her over Saudi Arabia. She remains imprisoned there, subjected to torture for her advocacy.
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