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.