The United Arab Emirates is close to purchasing Predator drones from a San Diego County defense contractor, sparking concern among arms control advocates.
Under the proposed sale, revealed this week at a defense conference in Abu Dhabi and confirmed Friday, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. of Poway, Calif., will sell an undisclosed number of the robotic aircraft to the UAE armed forces for $197 million.
The agreement would mark the first time a non-NATO country has obtained the American-made technology, which has reshaped modern warfare. The deal has drawn scrutiny from critics who worry about the technology falling into terrorists' hands or being used by governments against their own citizens.
The UAE, notably the city-state of Dubai, has been a crossroads for banking, finance and technology as the nation emerged as an economic hub for the Arab world. It has only recently begun to tighten regulations to limit money laundering and other shady financial endeavors that attracted Islamic militants, drug smugglers and other traffickers.
Over the last year, UAE security officials - which have drawn criticism for their surveillance tactics - have also cracked down on internal dissent after the political upheavals of the "Arab Spring."
The sale would still need the approval of Congress, and there are federal restrictions on selling large drones. But General Atomics, which builds the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper hunter-killer drones used by the U.S. Air Force and CIA, has designed a new unarmed version of the Predator that would qualify for export.
The remotely piloted aircraft, called the Predator XP, could be used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, but will not be outfitted for weapons capability. The company did not say whether any cameras and sensor packages would be included.
But the drone has the same physical dimensions, altitude, speed and flight endurance - up to 35 hours - as the original unarmed version of the Predator drone first flown by the Air Force in 1995.
General Atomics redesigned the Predator - XP stands for "export" - with the sole purpose of selling it to a broader customer base, including countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
The company said it had received an export license from the State Department to share technical information about the drone, but finalization of a deal is subject to other regulatory approval. Neither the State Department nor Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, would comment on the proposed sale.
General Atomics said a number of other regional governments had also expressed interest in the Predator XP.
Frank Pace, president of the company's aircraft systems group, said General Atomics looks forward to providing "affordable, reliable and cost-effective multi-mission capabilities to the UAE armed forces for years to come."
Though the company said the Predator XP cannot be weaponized, there are concerns about turning over drone technology and it someday being replicated as a missile-carrying system. Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association and a longtime critic of weapons exports, worries about the effect such a sale could have on U.S. foreign policy.
"This deal has potentially far-reaching implications for how the country will handle drone exports in the years to come," he said. "Congress needs to discuss and explore the long-term risks to the country and our allies in the region with the potential of the proliferation of this technology. Commercial profits cannot compromise national security."
The UAE, which has also developed its own drone, has been working to counter Iran's influence in the Persian Gulf region, especially in neighboring Bahrain, where Shiite Muslim unrest has driven two years of protests and civil strife.
"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."
To reach the deal with the UAE, General Atomics signed an agreement with an Abu Dhabi business partner, International Golden Group, nearly two years ago.
Similarly, Boeing Co. announced an agreement Monday with Abu Dhabi Autonomous Systems Investments Co. for the two firms to address the growing Middle East market for unmanned systems.
For years, U.S. drone makers have been eager to tap the growing foreign appetite for high-tech - and relatively cheap - unmanned aircraft, but they have been shut out by export regulations.
The U.S. already sells fighter jets, bunker-busting bombs and high-powered ship-mounted guns to a wide variety of countries. But drone sales have been largely prohibited since a 1987 international agreement reached by a group called the Missile Technology Control Regime. The group, which initially consisted of the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Britain, now includes 34 countries.
There have been a few exceptions made for sales over the years, but the agreement put restrictions on the export of any larger unmanned aircraft - blimps, helicopters, jets - that can carry 1,102 pounds for more than 186 miles at a time. Unarmed drones smaller than these are allowed to be sold.
The primary focus of the agreement was to control the spread of ballistic missiles and other weapons capable of mass destruction during the Cold War.
Defense companies have repeatedly said the restrictions are outdated and may cause the U.S. to lose potential customers to nations eager to elbow their way into the market. Israel makes and sells drones to several countries, including Azerbaijan, India and Ecuador. China has more than a dozen drones in development.
In its latest assessment of the industry, aerospace research firm Teal Group Corp. estimated that worldwide drone spending would almost double over the next decade, to $11.4 billion in 2022.
Anticipating the trend, the Congressional Research Service warned in a report last year that foreign competitors were getting a jump on U.S. firms.
"Much new business is likely to be generated in the market, and if U.S. companies fail to capture this market share, European, Russian, Israeli, Chinese or South African companies will," the agency said. "As part of its defense and foreign policy oversight, Congress may examine whether a balance must be struck between supporting legitimate U.S. exports and curbing the spread of (drone) technologies to dangerous groups or countries.