The United Arab Emirates has obtained nearly $200 million in U.S.-made Predator drones, marking a sign of the growing global expansion of the unmanned hardware.
The Los Angeles Times reports that the procurement "would mark the first time a non-NATO country" has obtained drones.
"UAVs are significant for any armed forces in present times. There is a lot of demand for these," Major General Obeid al-Ketbi told reporters at IDEX 2013, the largest arms exhibition in the Middle East, held in Abu Dhabi from Feb. 17 - 21.
The surveillance Predator XP drones are made by U.S.-based General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc. (GA‑ASI), and are a type of drone that "has been licensed by the U.S. Government for sale to a broader customer base, including countries in the Middle East and North Africa," the company writes.
“Two years ago we made a commitment to help the UAE strengthen its national security and protect critical infrastructure, and today we are pleased to share the news that this allied nation will soon be realizing the benefits of Predator XP’s long-endurance and wide-area surveillance capabilities,” J. Neal Blue, chairman and CEO of GA‑ASI, said in a statement on Friday
But the purchase has sparked concerns over the UAE's crackdown on dissent as well as the precedent the U.S. has set with its own drone use, the Los Angeles Times adds:
"The government has carried out a repressive campaign that has targeted Islamists, liberals, activists and scholars alike," said a Human Rights Watch report released last month. "The campaign has systematically violated UAE citizens' rights to free expression ... and employed tactics that directly contravene the international prohibition on arbitrary detention and forced disappearance."
Given the lack of public information about the U.S. government's own drone program, it seems perilous to sell drones overseas, even if they are unarmed, said Naureen Shah, associate director of the Counterterrorism and Human Rights Project at Columbia Law School.
"The U.S. has set a dangerous precedent with its use of drones as it now sees the world as a global battlefield," she said. "Are other countries also going to claim that vast authority with this technology? I guess we'll have to see."
In addition to the drone purchase, the biggest part of $1.4 billion in military contracts the UAE announced at the conference was for 750 all-terrain armed military vehicles from U.S. company Oshkosh Defense.
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Riad Kahwaji, CEO of defense thinktank Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA), says: "We're going to see a lot of spending from the Gulf countries into the area of drones for surveillance as well as for combat operations."