Red Sea: Why Arab nations won't join new naval coalition

The US has announced a naval coalition to protect shipping from Houthi attacks, but only one West Asian country has joined

The U.S. and allies have initiated a naval operation in the Red Sea to safeguard maritime commerce.(representative image)  (photo: DW)
The U.S. and allies have initiated a naval operation in the Red Sea to safeguard maritime commerce.(representative image) (photo: DW)


When the US announced a naval coalition to protect commercial vessels traveling in the Red Sea earlier this week, the Americans initially said there would be 10 countries taking part. Questions arose almost immediately about why some of the largest Arab naval powers were not.

Since mid-November, the Houthi rebel group in Yemen has been firing rockets and sending drones to harass ships traveling through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. A senior Houthi official said on social media that this won't stop "until the crimes of genocide in Gaza are stopped and food, medicine and fuel are allowed to enter its besieged population."

"Enmity with Israel is a strategic raison d'etre for the Houthis," Daniel Gerlach, an expert on the region, told DW recently. "It's part of their claim that Israel is their main enemy, although actually there is of course no direct territorial conflict with Israel. [But] they want to show the entire Muslim and the Arab world that they're on the side of the Palestinians."

On 19 November, the rebel group, which has been involved in a civil war at home since 2015 and now controls a large part of the country, hijacked the Galaxy Leader, a cargo ship co-owned by an Israeli businessman.

Other ships have been attacked with drones and in one case, another ship was even briefly boarded.

The harassment has mostly happened in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait which connects the Gulf of Aden with the Red Sea and is 32 kilometers (about 20 miles) wide at its narrowest point. It allows ships access to the Suez Canal, the shortest way between Europe and Asia.

As a result, several major shipping companies have suspended operations passing through the strait.

The proposed US naval coalition to protect commercial shipping against Houthi threats is called Operation Prosperity Guardian." The US has invited all 38 other members of what is known as the Combined Maritime Forces, or CMF, a US-led maritime security coalition in the Middle East, to join it.

So far, only nine countries have publicly said they will join the US: Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, the Seychelles and the UK.

But almost immediately, questions were raised. The Spanish government denied it had joined, the French were worried their participation might distract from other operations and the Italians said their ship would remain under Italian command.

But one of the biggest question marks was around the absence of any larger Middle Eastern nations. Bahrain is the only Middle Eastern nation involved so far. But this is no surprise: the small nation is home to the US Navy's 5th Fleet.

Egypt has much to lose

The Suez Canal belongs to Egypt and is an important source of revenue — up to $10 billion annually — for the country, which is already dealing with an economic crisis.

Egypt is also a member of CMF. Operation Prosperity Guardian will operate under the auspices of the CMF's Task Force 153, which focuses on Red Sea security, as well monitoring Iran and countering Somalian piracy. Egypt took on the rotating command of Task Force 153 late last year.

Even though it's likely losing millions because of the blockage of the Suez Canal, Egypt has not criticized the Houthi attacks nor has it openly joined the naval coalition.

Experts have said this is most likely because of Egypt's proximity to the conflict and the sensitivity about this issue in the Arab world in general.

Saudi Arabia: Peace talks with Houthis

Saudi Arabia is also a member of the US-led CMF. However, the Saudis have also recently been fostering detente with the Houthis on one hand, and the Houthi's sponsors in Iran, on the other.

Saudi Arabia has led a military coalition against the Houthis in Yemen's civil war since 2015. The oil-rich country has recently been trying to extricate itself from that conflict, which is more or less at a stalemate, and have been involved in peace talks.

Experts conclude the Saudis have not joined the naval coalition because they are concerned this would scupper those peace talks, and possibly even damage newly relaxed relations with Iran.

There is also the possibility that the Houthis strike at Saudi oil depots again, the way they did in 2019 with devastating effect. The Houthis have threatened to attack these, should either the UAE or Saudi Arabia join the new naval coalition.

United Arab Emirates: Tough approach

By all accounts, the United Arab Emirates is interested in a more hard-line position against the Houthis, even though it has not joined the naval coalition.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia "have differing views on how to approach the Houthi problem," James Stavridis a retired US Navy admiral, wrote in an op-ed for Bloomberg this week. "The UAE is calling for strong military action against the rebels, while Riyadh wants a more measured approach. They need to be persuaded to put this spat aside."

In May, the UAE said it would be leaving the multinational CMF, although this has not yet been formalized, Eleonora Ardemagni, a researcher at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies, told Beirut-based newspaper L'Orient-Le Jour this week.

The UAE is "not satisfied with Washington's security response in the Middle East, which has been deemed too weak in recent years," Ardemagni explained. "But they remain in favor of a firm response, aimed at undermining the Houthis' military capabilities and reducing the threat to commercial shipping because, unlike the Saudis, they are not engaged in bilateral negotiations."

Concern about Houthi attacks on UAE oil fields could be another an issue.

Bad image in Arab world

Analysts have also said that the one thing the three Red Sea powers have in common is the fact that they don't necessarily want to be seen as working in defense of Israel.

Opinion polls regularly show the issue of Palestinian statehood has huge resonance among people in the Middle East. Because of this, Middle Eastern leaders tend to pay lip service to it even if they don't actually want to do much about it.

For the past few years, the US has encouraged cooperation between Israel and the Gulf countries in order to combat Iranian influence, Camille Lons, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, noted last week.

"Now the war in Gaza means that Red Sea security cooperation is unlikely to happen anytime soon, as Arab Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia are now unwilling to proceed with Israeli normalisation."

Perhaps even more interesting: There are actually another nine countries who will participate in the new naval coalition but who don't want to go public with their participation, sources inside the US administration have told journalists.

The US' national security spokesperson John Kirby confirmed this at a press briefing on Tuesday, 19 December. Asked why the Saudis and the UAE didn't appear on the list of possible coalition members, Kirby replied that, "there are some nations that have agreed to participate and to be a part of this but they get to decide — they're sovereign nations — how public they want that to be." 

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Published: 22 Dec 2023, 10:29 AM