CEDAR RAPIDS, IOWA // The UAE will buy a US$3.5 billion (Dh12.7bn) missile defence system from the US, the Pentagon says.
As Washington's US allies in the Middle East spend billions beefing up their militaries, Iran - which is threatening to blockade the Gulf with its warships - said it had delayed test-firing long-range missiles during naval exercises in the Gulf yesterday. State media had earlier reported the tests had gone ahead as planned.
The UAE purchase comes days after the White House announced the $30 billion sale of 84 fighter jets to Saudi Arabia and another deal for 209 Patriot missiles for Kuwait.
Under the UAE contract, announced late on Friday, US-based Lockheed Martin would deliver two Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) systems that include radar, interceptors and launchers. The deal also includes spare parts, support and training.
It is the first foreign sale of the THAAD sytem and would significantly improve the UAE's defences, the Pentagon said in a statement.
"Acquisition of this critical defence system will bolster the UAE's air and missile defence capability and enhance the already robust ballistic missile defence cooperation between the United States and the UAE," George Little, a Pentagon spokesman, said.
Tehran warned last week that it could block shipping through the Strait of Hormuz, through which a third of the world's seaborne oil supplies pass, if the EU and the US were to enforce tougher sanctions targeting Iran's crude exports.
Tensions between Iran and the international community have risen since the International Atomic Energy Association reported in November that month the country appears be working on designing an nuclear bomb. Iran denies this and says it needs nuclear technology to generate electricity to meet growing domestic demand.
Critics say the Obama administration has failed to address Iran's nuclear programme. The sale of advanced weapons systems to allies in the region is in part a response to such criticism, said Mark Perry, a Washington-based author specialising in military and foreign affairs.
"Arming our allies is a good substitute for an attack and it answers those critics who says we are not doing anything," Mr Perry said.
Those who fear that an increased number of arms in the region will escalate the situation, he said, ignore the fact tensions are already high and rising.
"It can't get more escalated than it already is. This calms our allies, it deflects Israeli and conservative criticism of Obama and does all that short of escalating the military situation," he said.
The UAE contract also signals that as the US gradually draws down its forces from around Iran - the last US combat troops left Iraq in December and the US military has begun the process of withdrawing all troops from Afghanistan, Washington remains committed to the defence of its Gulf allies.
The US undersecretary of state for political affairs, Wendy Sherman, will travel to Saudi Arabia and the UAE next week to discuss developments in the region with senior officials of the two nations, the State Department said Friday.
Mr Perry added the contract should secure American jobs, an important issue in the 2012 presidential race, which enters a new stage this Tuesday with the Iowa caucuses.
UAE officials could not be reached for comment.
* With additional reporting by the Associated Press