Emirati, Chinese Push in Belgrade Sparks Concern in Washington

Updated: May 11

On September 15, 2021, China National Pharmaceutical Group Corporation, otherwise known as Sinopharm, began construction on a COVID-19 vaccine production facility in Belgrade, Republic of Serbia. Financially supported by the United Arab Emirates' (UAE) Group 42, an organization controlled by UAE's National Security Advisor Tahnoon bin Zayed al Nahyan, the project signifies growing cooperation between the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the United Arab Emirates.


US Concerned with Emirati, Chinese, Israeli Behavior

Less than two weeks after the initiation of the facility's construction in Belgrade, the United States House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) approved the 2022 Intelligence Authorization Act (IAA). While the IAA has attracted attention in American media for its increased funding of counterintelligence programs in the United States (US) and authorization for intelligence collection against Saudi Arabia as a result of its support for Wahabisim, the act also calls for the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), Avril Haines, to prepare a report by January 1, 2022 on Chinese-Emirati cooperation in, "strategic sectors." The move underscores growing concern in Washington that US technology and intelligence may be making its way to Beijing via Abu Dhabi.


HPSCI's action is a result of growing fear in the Department of Defense (DoD), Department of State (DoS), and intelligence community (IC) that cooperation between the UAE and PRC may be detrimental to US interests, both in the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region and Indo-Pacific.


In 2017, it was revealed that the UAE had purchased Chengdu Pterodactyll I (Wing-Loong) unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) from the People's Republic of China after President Barack Obama had refused to sell the MQ-1 Predator to the country. Following their acquisition, the UAVs were upgraded with western surveillance and avionics equipment by Israel's Elbit Systems, a defense corporation which has previously business with the DoD and Israel Defense Forces (IDF). IC and congressional reports indicate there is a significant likelihood that Chinese technicians were able to inspect these platforms following their upgrade, thus providing them access to modern Israeli technology, which is often equal or superior in quality to American defense systems.


While 2017 was the first major defense endeavor undertaken by the UAE and PRC, it was not the last. Group 42, although controlled by Tahnoon bin Zayed al Nahyan, is currently headed by Peng Xiao, a Chinese national and the former head of Pegasus, the UAE's largest big data company. This organization is currently developing cloud and surveillance technology in conjunction with Huawei Technologies LTD, an organization which the United States has deemed a national security threat. This issue is compounded by the fact Group 42 regularly cooperates with Israeli data and defense giants, such as Rafael Advanced Defense Systems.


With warming relations between Israel and the UAE, Group 42, Pegasus, and its founding company, DarkMatter, have increased their hiring levels of former Israeli intelligence officers and Israel Defense Forces (IDF) personnel, giving the UAE, and by extension the PRC, potential access Israeli or American intelligence, technology, and data collection methods.


In the eyes of policymakers in Washington, Emirati money, Chinese infrastructure and intelligence, and Israeli technology and data make for a bad combination. With the congress and the White House currently debating the authorization of the sale of Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning IIs to the United Arab Emirates, there is growing fear in the Department of Defense (DoD), Department of State (DoS), and intelligence community (IC) that such a move would gravely undermine operational security measures taken to stop the spread of the F-35's advanced technology to the People's Republic of China and the People's Liberation Army (PLA).


Assessment

Given its close relationship with the People's Republic of China, it would seem odd that the United States is considering authorizing the sale of Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning IIs to the United Arab Emirates. However, The Intelligence Ledger assesses that the potential sale of the airframe is being used by Washington as a bargaining chip to bring Abu Dhabi out of the grip of the Chinese government. Continued cooperation between Group 42 and Chinese giants such as Sinopharm, however, may indicate that such a gambit is doomed to fail.