The biannual five-day International Defense Exhibition and Naval Defense Exhibition (IDEX and NAVDEX 2021), which features more than 900 exhibitors from 59 nations with 35 national pavilions, kicked off this week. But there was one notable absence. 

The United States had no high-level official delegation at the big Abu Dhabi defense show, which it has traditionally attended with American officials from U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). 

In a piece by Breaking Defense, event organizers, who asked not to be identified, noted the lack of U.S. participation.

“The U.S. delegations used to be the biggest of all delegations that showed up at IDEX, which is hosted by one of the most important clients to the U.S. defense industry,” one official said. 

At the heart of the matter was the decision by the Biden administration to freeze major arms deals to both the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia. The lack of American presence in Abu Dhabi drives home the point that relations between Washington and Abu Dhabi are frosty right now. 

In the final weeks of the Trump administration, the United States agreed to a massive $23 billion dollar deal of 50 Lockheed-Martin F-35 stealth fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates. On December 29, the State Department also approved the sale of 18 Reaper drones and as many as 3,000 missiles, worth as much as $290 million, to Saudi Arabia.

Both of these sales have been frozen by the Biden administration as announced by the new Secretary of State Antony Blinken less than a week after he assumed his position. Trump had pushed the deal through by declaring the sale “an emergency” given that the U.A.E.-Saudi coalition is in a fight in Yemen against Iran-supported Houthi rebels

While a candidate for president, Biden vowed to cut aid to the coalition in order to stop the fighting in Yemen. And as soon as he took office, he did just that.

Blinken also removed the terrorist designation from the Houthis. And although the U.S. urged them to stop the violence, the Houthi rebels responded by launching missiles at Saudi Arabia and striking an international airport.

This is all tied to the administration’s desire to entice Iran back to the negotiating table in an attempt to restart the JCPOA, the nuclear deal that the Obama administration had pushed through to hopefully get the Iranians to slow their attempts to build nuclear weapons. The Biden administration has also said it won’t “lash out” at Iranian proxy militias that continue to launch rockets at the American Embassy in Baghdad and U.S.-led coalition bases. 

It is also contemplating approving a five billion USD International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan to Iran. While the loan will nominally be for COVID-19 relief, there will be little accountability as to how Tehran spends the money. The regime would be free to spend it on its missile, military, and nuclear programs.

But if Washington was thinking that the U.A.E. was going to sit idly by it is mistaken. 

Dr. Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, an Emirati Political Science professor, echoed the sentiment of the U.A.E. government when he posted to Twitter, “IDEX-2021 is an opportunity to seek new sources of arms away from the United States to bolster the future U.A.E. defense and deterrence capabilities, like the Chinese J-20 that is a 5th generation fighter equal to that of the F-35.” He added that “Suspicious and worrying signals and sometimes aggressive from President Biden Administration to [the] Arab Gulf States. Are we still friends and allies to Washington?”

U.A.E. military officials made it a point to stop for lengthy discussions at the Chinese and Russian pavilions at IDEX 2021. “The U.A.E. has plenty of options other than the US. It resorted to them before and will again if need be,” said one unnamed Emirati military officer, referencing that in the past when the U.S. had refused to sell drones to the U.A.E. it had purchased two different types from the Chinese. 

American defense contractors told Breaking Defense’s media members that they hope Congress will unfreeze the deals but also said that if the deals are squashed, firms from China and Israel are standing by to fill the void.

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