Efforts to restore confidence between the U.S. and the Arab Gulf states took a first step with the recent formation of a new naval task force, known as the Combined Maritime Forces-153 (CMF-153), to improve maritime security in the Red Sea, Bab el-Mandeb, and the Gulf of Aden, including the hotspot of Yemen. Established in mid-April, the new task force intends to target weapons smuggling for Ansar Allah, as the Houthi militias are officially known, as well as human trafficking and the drug trade. Following the straining of relations between Washington and Gulf capitals, especially Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, the time is ripe for the U.S. and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to work together to address the opportunities and challenges presented by the current political landscape. First, the two-month national truce in Yemen and the appointment of an inclusive Presidential Council embody a trend of de-escalation that could contribute to the reconstruction of the Yemeni Coast Guard (YCG). Second, the Abraham Accords have created opportunities for strengthening maritime security in the Red Sea and Bab el-Mandeb Strait, as recently shown by unprecedented joint naval drills between Israel and the Gulf states. Given local security issues as well as growing rivalries at sea among regional and international players, securing the waterways surrounding the Arabian Peninsula is a pressing need that simply cannot be delayed.
On April 17, 2022, the CMF-153, a multinational naval mission temporarily led by the U.S. and deployed in the Red Sea, the Bab el-Mandeb, and the Gulf of Aden, was launched “to focus on international maritime security and capacity building efforts.” According to Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, the commander of the U.S. 5th Fleet, the CMF-153 is set to target the smuggling of weapons, drugs, people, and coal — the latter a source of revenue for Somalia-based terrorist group al-Shabab — through and around the waterway. Although Yemen’s Houthis were not explicitly mentioned, the weapons in question are largely being smuggled to them.
The Houthis: Increasing maritime attacks in the Red Sea and weapons smuggling
Through 2021 into early 2022, the Houthis escalated their irregular warfare attacks against civilian targets in Saudi Arabia, the Red Sea, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In 2021, the geographical focus of these attacks shifted from the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea. As stressed by the Final Report of the U.N. Panel of Experts on Yemen 2022, the Houthis have been augmenting their use of waterborne improvised explosive devices, targeting ships moored at maritime oil facilities in Saudi Arabia especially. These devices were presumably assembled in Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen and launched from the Hodeida and Salif ports. Attacks were likely executed with the support of a “mothership,” but nevertheless continued after April 2021, when Israel reportedly struck the suspected mothership Saviz, an Iran-flagged cargo carrier in the Red Sea. The Houthis have also used unmanned aerial vehicles to strike commercial vessels and planted sea mines in the southern Red Sea close to Hodeida, Salif, and Ras Isa ports, along with drifting sea mines near the Saudi border.
Despite the 2015 U.N. Security Council resolution imposing an arms embargo against the Houthi leadership, traditional boats (dhows) and land transport are still used to smuggle into Yemen weapons made in Iran, China, and Russia. According to the 2022 U.N. panel report, “The mix of the weapons indicates a common pattern of supply, likely from government stocks, involving dhows in the Arabian Sea, which transport weapons to Yemen and Somalia.” The report went on to underline the Houthis’ sourcing of “critical components for their weapon systems from companies in Europe and Asia” through a “complex network of intermediaries” to hide the chain of custody.
Yemen: Political-military fragmentation in the rimland weakens the Coast Guard’s reconstruction
Seven years into the Yemeni Civil War, maritime security off the country’s coasts remains a major issue. Since 2017, Tareq Saleh’s National Resistance Forces in Mokha and the Bab el-Mandeb area have reduced the Houthis’ leverage in the Red Sea, now concentrated in Hodeida and its smaller ports. A variety of armed groups, however, continue to operate in the Yemeni rimland, where they provide security and services on Yemen’s coasts, port cities, and islands. These mostly UAE-backed groups, while fighting the Houthis, also compete with the forces supporting the internationally recognized government. Although military and political fragmentation has certainly hampered the rehabilitation of Yemen’s maritime forces, the YCG has managed since 2020 to increase its patrolling activities off the coasts formally controlled by the recognized government.
The recent U.N. Security Council Resolution n°2624 (approved on Feb. 28, 2022) not only extends the arms embargo from the Houthis’ leadership to their rank and file, but also calls upon states to support the capacity-building efforts of the YCG. The resolution — strongly supported by the UAE — condemned the “the increasing number of incidents off the coast of Yemen” and urged member states “to increase efforts to combat the smuggling of weapons and components via land and sea routes.” For its part, the YCG has already cooperated with the CMF 150 task force to combat smuggling and performed joint activities with EUNAVFOR-Operation Atalanta (EU Naval Force Somalia) in the Gulf of Aden. In late 2020, EUNAVFOR’s mandate was expanded to include the monitoring of weapons trafficking.
The Abraham Accords: A catalyst for maritime cooperation in the Arabian Peninsula’s waterways
In the Red Sea waterways, the Abraham Accords are giving rise to new forms of maritime security cooperation that the CMF-153 is likely to strengthen. This revamped naval cooperation aims to tackle Iranian-sponsored irregular warfare activities, preventing attacks on littoral targets. Saudi Arabia is also taking part in these maritime efforts, despite not having formalized diplomatic relations with Israel. In 2021, the Pentagon moved Israel into the U.S. Central Command’s (CENTCOM) area of responsibility to boost Gulf-Israel defense cooperation. In addition, Egypt also joined the CMF in April 2021, becoming its 34th member. One of the key facets of such cooperation is securing maritime waterways. To this end, the 5th Fleet launched Task Force 59 for deterrence and maritime awareness in shallow waters, with Bahrain as its first regional partner. Later in the year, Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain held unprecedented naval exercises in the Red Sea, under the coordination of the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT). From Jan. 31 to Feb. 17 of this year, the Saudi and Omani navies joined the U.S.-led International Maritime Exercise in the Red Sea, alongside Israel, the UAE, and Bahrain.
Maritime security: A driver for relaunching the US-GCC partnership
Given the recent differences between the U.S. and the GCC, maritime security is a vital mutual interest that can help to revive the partnership. Both sides share the goal of securing the global trade routes running through the Red Sea, Bab el-Mandeb, and the Gulf of Aden. Thus, both sides stand to gain from a collective security framework covering maritime security, regular energy supplies, and the provision of commodities, in an interplay of national interests and global security (what I have defined elsewhere as “pan-security”). The containment of Iranian-associated destabilizing activities also represents a common priority. For the U.S. and the Gulf states, the CMF-153 is a win-win. On the one hand, this naval task force goes a long way toward reassuring Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have too often felt abandoned in recent years by Washington. On the other hand, the CMF-153 equips the U.S. with an agile, cooperation-oriented tool for building local capacities. This has become even more crucial since the onset of the war in Ukraine, as in the medium to long term the U.S. will need to commit to a “flexible logistic network” approach to Middle Eastern security. Such an approach entails reducing basing, costs, and resources while relying on the security architecture of regional allies. The horizon is “integrated deterrence,” a strategy based not on American primacy but rather on egalitarian partnership between the U.S. and its regional allies. It’s quite telling that the U.S. has already announced its intention to hand over leadership of the CMF-153 to a regional partner at the end of 2022. One can clearly see a multitude of shared interests coming together to make maritime security the ideal place to start revitalizing the U.S.-GCC partnership, and the CMF-153 can be an initial step in that direction.
Eleonora Ardemagni is an Associate Research Fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), a Teaching Assistant at the Catholic University of Milan, and an Adjunct Professor at the Graduate School of Economics and International Relations-ASERI. Her research analysis focuses on foreign policy and security issues in Yemen and the Gulf monarchies, as well as Arab military forces. The views expressed in this piece are her own.
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