China’s surprising drone sales in the Middle East

The Biden administration plans to move forward with $23 billion in weapons sales to the United Arab Emirates, according to press reports published last week. The sales include F-35 aircraft, MQ-9B armed drones, and other equipment.

The Biden administration’s decision was likely informed, at least in part, by a new dynamic emerging in the Middle East arms market: Beijing has increasingly exploited Washington’s reticence to sell drones to key Gulf partners. If this trend continues in drones and other arms sales, it will undermine Washington’s leverage and potentially endanger core American interests.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) released a report in March noting that global arms transfers from 2016 to 2020 leveled off compared to 2011–2015—but arms imports in the volatile Middle East grew by 25 percent in the same period. Arms sales to countries in the region included, for example, advanced tanks, aircraft, ships, and satellites. The…