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Briefings on UAE-China ties revive lawmakers’ worry about Mideast ally

Rubio says many countries are ‘hedging their bets’

Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., a member of the House Intelligence Committee, warned about the close proximity of U.S. and Chinese installations in the UAE.
Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., a member of the House Intelligence Committee, warned about the close proximity of U.S. and Chinese installations in the UAE. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A senior Democratic lawmaker who backed legislation last year asking intelligence agencies to examine and report on the ties between the United Arab Emirates and China says he is alarmed at what he has learned since then. 

Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., is one of several lawmakers with intelligence access sounding alarms about China’s activity in the Middle East. Krishnamoorthi said he couldn’t discuss details of classified briefings. 

“What I can say is that it’s only increased my concerns about CCP’s influence in the Middle East, in the UAE and in other countries of interest to us,” he said in an interview, referring to the Chinese Communist Party.

“When you have a nation such as the UAE hosting both, you know, important bases for the United States, but also potential installations for the CCP… we just have to be extremely candid with our partners in the UAE, as well as careful from a security standpoint [about] what could happen with that close proximity to CCP installations,” said Krishnamoorthi, who is a member of the House Intelligence Committee and ranking member of the select committee on competition with China.

Krishnamoorthi backed legislation included in the omnibus spending bill for fiscal 2022 that required the director of national intelligence to give the House and Senate Intelligence committees detailed reports on the ties between the two countries “in defense, security, technology, and other strategically sensitive matters that implicate U.S. national security interests.” 

Lawmakers said the intelligence agencies have yet to formally report on their findings. 

Krishnamoorthi said Beijing has offered to upgrade UAE’s telecom infrastructure with 5G equipment made by Chinese telecom giant Huawei. 

“Alarm bells go off because we know that Huawei infrastructure gives the CCP a back door into accessing important data about users on the network. It gives them a surveillance capability that they don’t necessarily have with Nokia or Ericsson infrastructure,” he said. 

Krishnamoorthi pushed for the intelligence reports after The Wall Street Journal in late 2021 reported on satellite imagery that showed significant construction at Abu Dhabi’s Khalifa Port by the Chinese firm Cosco. 
The report said concerns that the construction could be a military installation had led White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan to travel to the UAE and urge a halt to the port construction. 

The UAE had promised to do so, but intelligence services detected construction at the site one year after work was supposed to be stopped, The Washington Post reported Wednesday, citing classified intelligence information allegedly leaked on the online Discord platform by Jack Teixeira, a member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard. Teixeira has been arrested and charged with unauthorized retention of classified material. 

The UAE hosts a U.S. Air Force Base in Al Dhafra, south of Abu Dhabi, where about 3,500 U.S. personnel are stationed, according to the State Department. The UAE also provides logistical support to U.S. Navy ships and “collectively hosts more Navy ships than any other port outside the United States,” according to the department. 

Neither the UAE nor the Chinese embassies responded to requests for comment.

‘We must assure our friends’

Other lawmakers with access to intelligence information also expressed concerns about China’s presence in the Middle East. 

“We know that China has been aggressively courting allies in the Middle East, hoping to plant a perception that the U.S. is pulling back from our partners in the region,” said Senate Intelligence Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va. “The UAE is a longtime friend of the United States, and we must assure our friends that nothing could be further from the truth.”

Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said, “speaking broadly, what you are seeing in the UAE is similar to what you’re seeing a lot of developing countries around the world, which is they’re hedging their bets.” 

“They see this shift in global order and they’re trying to get the best deals for themselves,” Rubio said. 

The UAE’s relationship with China already has complicated U.S. efforts to sell advanced F-35 jet fighters and drones to the Middle Eastern ally. 

An attempt to block the Trump administration’s plans to export the advanced aircraft to the UAE in late 2020 was narrowly rejected in the Senate. But the Biden administration put the deal on hold, and its future remains unclear.

Lawmakers said they had concerns about the F-35 deal if it were to be revived, particularly over worries that U.S. defense technologies could leak to Beijing.

“I think that our friends in the Gulf have to decide particularly on the security questions who they want to turn to,” Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said in an interview. “If it’s China, then I think that’s a huge problem. There’s a difference between trading issues and all of these other issues. At some point, they’ll have to decide which way they want to go. You can’t have it every which way.” 

Menendez said he would support sales of U.S. military gear to the UAE, and would “be supportive of their efforts for security, but not at the risk of giving it to the Chinese.”

Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., who chairs the Foreign Relations subcommittee focused on the Middle East, said in an interview that “there’s a real reason to be worried about the extent of UAE’s integration with Chinese security services.”

Murphy said such concerns are behind lawmakers’ support for pausing “the transfer of the F-35 and the MQ-9s [Reaper drones].” If the administration pushes to resume the sales of the military equipment, “I’ll argue for us to cancel those purchases,” Murphy said. 

“We can’t be in business with countries that have deep mil-to-mil relationships with China that would compromise our systems and our proprietary technology,” Murphy said. 

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said in an interview he wasn’t sure how much of the public reporting on the UAE-China relations was fact or fiction. 

“I do know this: that Middle Eastern countries are engaging at their own peril with China on the security front. China is an adversary to the United States. They steal intellectual property. They’re not part of the solution,” Graham said. 

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