The Northwestern Indian Ocean (NWIO), the Persian Gulf, and the Red Sea are distinct maritime spaces, each one with its peculiar ecosystem, political dynamics, and underlying threats. However, due to their geographical proximity and commonality of actors influencing their geopolitical destiny, these bodies of water are closely interdependent and interconnected. Deteriorating security conditions and fast-evolving political developments in one regularly have far-reaching consequences that rapidly extend to the other two. The close symbiosis between these three maritime spaces requires actors keen on building influence and projecting power to develop a comprehensive maritime security posture.
While the European Union is familiar with these strategic waters, the bloc’s efforts to design an integrated regional maritime vision are recent. Traditionally, Brussels has favored a piecemeal approach that deals with the NWIO, the Gulf, and the Red Sea as separate entities. As a result, the EU has long struggled to properly gauge the economic and political interplays between these maritime spaces by compartmentalizing each body of water.
The global shockwaves of Russia’s full-scale aggression against Ukraine, the ramping-up of Chinese diplomatic activism and strategic presence in this broader maritime region, and the recalibration of the United States’ Middle East policy, however, have prompted the EU to embark on an overall reconsideration of its naval policy. Brussels has issued several programmatic documents and declarations of intent over the last few years, signaling a gradual, substantive turnaround in the EU’s maritime approach. With the EU signaling a growing desire to steer its naval policy toward a more holistic and organic process, an opportunity is opening up for Brussels to become a more relevant security actor in the waters off the Arabian Peninsula.
Laying the groundwork
In February 2022, the Council of the EU established a Maritime Area of Interest (MAI) in the NWIO and launched the implementation of the Coordinated Maritime Presence (CMP) concept in the region. Successfully tested to coordinate EU member states’ warships policing international waters in the Gulf of Guinea, the CMP aims at strengthening the EU’s maritime diplomacy. It seeks to pursue this goal by enhancing synergies among the naval assets of the EU member states stationed in a maritime region and promoting cooperation with the EU’s regional partners. Although warships remain under their national chain of command, the CMP works to boost operational engagement among the different navies and to ensure a permanent EU naval presence in the region.
While the decision to extend the CMP to the NWIO represents a continuity of the propositions outlined in “The EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific,” the choice to include the Red Sea and the Strait of Hormuz in the new MAI is truly novel. Until then, the EU’s naval horizon in this part of the world was limited to Somali territorial seas, the international waters off the Horn of Africa, and the Gulf of Aden. Thus, through the MAI, Brussels officially manifested a radical shift in its way of conceptualizing and approaching these maritime regions. For the first time, the EU presented these adjacent seas not as sealed-off maritime enclaves but as a unitary geopolitical space.
Although the MAI does not extend to include the waters between the Strait of Hormuz and the mouth of Iraq’s Shatt al-Arab river, the proposal for a “Strategic Partnership with the Gulf,” released by the European Commission in May 2022, reveals that the EU eyes the fast-evolving dynamics and needs of the Persian Gulf region with renewed attention. Most importantly, the document reflects some significant changes in how the EU envisions the Persian Gulf: First, it acknowledges the prime role the Arab Gulf countries have come to play in the current global order; second, it recognizes that the concerns and interests of the Arab Gulf partners directly impact the EU’s long-term stability. Among the six main areas for enhanced engagement between the EU and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries outlined in the proposal, there are also some calls for nurturing cooperation in the maritime security domain. The EU aims to provide seafarers with a safe navigation environment and to support de-escalation efforts at sea. Still, the lack of a full-fledged naval presence in the region hinders its ambitions. To this end, Brussels seeks to improve coordination between the naval assets of the EU member states dispatched to the Gulf and operating in nearby regions.
The need to enhance the EU forward-deployed naval force is mentioned on several occasions in the 2023 “EU Maritime Security Strategy” (EUMSS) as a key element to promote its role as a global maritime security provider. Though the document’s core tenets — the commitment to a rules-based order at sea and unfettered access to safe shipping routes — have mainly remained the same since its first publication almost 10 years ago, the updated strategy acknowledges that the current global geopolitical context presents a vast array of new threats and worrisome challenges to the long-term stability of the EU and its member states. In this regard, the EUNAVFOR counter-piracy mission Operation Atalanta and the French-led surveillance mission European Maritime Awareness in the Strait of Hormuz (EMASoH) are expected to be at the forefront of the EU’s efforts to build naval muscle in this broader maritime region.
The EU Council’s decision to extend Operation Atalanta’s mandate until December 2024 and expand its non-executive tasks to include a broader set of maritime security operations underscores the critical role the counter-piracy mission is bound to play in the EU’s effort to gain naval relevance. Inaugurated in 2008 to protect World Food Program ships delivering humanitarian aid to Somalia and to counter the illicit use of the high seas, Operation Atalanta has a successful track record in policing international waters and fighting criminal networks. However, with no piracy attacks since 2017 and the major shipping industry groups removing the maritime region off the Horn of Africa’s coast from their list of high-risk areas starting from January 2023, Operation Atalanta seemed to have run its course.
Despite the improved piracy situation offshore, security conditions onshore remain highly fragile and vulnerable to rapid deterioration. As long as Somali criminal networks retain considerable disruptive capabilities, simmering inland tensions might rapidly spill over to the maritime environment and harm the long-sought-after safety of international shipping lanes. By extending Operation Atalanta’s area of operations to the entire Red Sea and by including further cooperation with EMASoH among the mission’s non-executive tasks, Brussels has manifested strong willpower not only to prevent the Somali coast from turning once again into a launchpad for piracy attacks but also to sharpen the EU’s credentials as a reliable maritime security provider.
Unlike Operation Atalanta, EMASoH operates outside the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) framework. Inaugurated in January 2020 amid mounting episodes of harassment targeting merchant ships transiting the Strait of Hormuz, it is an ad hoc minilateral naval partnership supported by nine European countries. Through its military arm (Operation Agénor), EMASoH aims to ensure safe transit and freedom of navigation in the Gulf’s shipping lanes by conducting joint patrols, reassurance calls, and accompaniments of merchant vessels. In addition, EMASoH carries out a wide range of auxiliary naval diplomacy tasks critical to enhancing the operation’s reputation in the eyes of the merchant shipping community and littoral countries, such as conducting port calls, receiving senior officials at the Force HQ in Abu Dhabi’s Zayed Port, and participating in maritime security workshops.
While cooperation between the two operations is far from optimal due to significant differences in the command structure, political control, and strategic scope, it is worth mentioning that they also show remarkable points of convergence on the common goal of providing maritime situational awareness and the de-escalatory approach they pursue. With Brussels finally outlining an institutional framework more conducive to developing enhanced synergies, intensified cooperation in intelligence sharing and joint naval exercises between Operation Atalanta and EMASoH is expected to materialize soon. Furthermore, the common practice among European naval assets dispatched to Middle Eastern and Horn of Africa waters to protract their deployment by rotating their services between the two operations greatly facilitates the process as crews are already familiar with the operational environment’s security challenges.
Last November, at an annual Bahrain-based military-civilian conference on maritime security virtually attended by this author, French Rear Admiral Emmanuel Slaars, who at the time was the operational commander of Operation Agénor, put forward a thought-provoking proposal to boost European navies’ maritime security cooperation in the region: bringing EMASoH and Operation Atalanta under a unified military command. While the idea presents major benefits, such as reducing unnecessary duplication of naval assets and fostering interoperability among European forces, it also confronts significant political and material obstacles. The difficulty in agreeing on common strategic priorities among the EU countries and the limited number of deployable warships loom over a unified command’s inherent gains.
The bumpy road to naval relevance
By and large, Brussels has manifested a renewed resolve to bolster its profile as a maritime security guarantor. However, some constraints could hinder the EU’s quest for naval relevance in Middle Eastern waters.
First, the EU remains only half-equipped to conduct large-scale protracted maritime missions in remote waters due to the paucity of deployable naval assets at the disposal of its member states. Although a growing number of European warships have visited the region during the past several years, the overall EU strategic footprint remains comparatively light and insufficient to tackle hybrid threats. But as Russian revanchist ambitions add pressure on the EU to re-focus its strategic attention on the security needs of its southern and eastern flanks, Brussels should resist scaling down its already-thin maritime footprint in the region, especially considering Moscow’s recent inroads in the Red and Arabian seas.
Second, the EU’s efforts are doomed to fall short of the mark if Brussels fails to convince regional partners about the seriousness of its security guarantees and willingness to engage with them on an equal footing. While showing the flag and making symbolic pledges are vital to building credibility and influence, they do not win the trust and respect of regional audiences by themselves. As the Chinese-brokered Saudi-Iranian normalization deal illustrates, the Gulf countries perceive themselves as rising powers capable of navigating the current global scramble for influence and hedging between the West and the East without taking sides. To succeed in its quest for strategic relevance, the EU needs to actively listen to its regional partners, refrain from engaging them via a top-down approach, and properly message what it has to offer regarding mutually beneficial gains.
Finally, the EU’s foreign policy-making remains a complex process that primarily depends on the interplay between the national interests of the 27 member states and the multiple goals pursued by Brussels. The flurry of programmatic documents and declarations of intent issued by the EU underscores that the member states have come to a genuine consensus on the path ahead. However, the next challenge is ensuring the proper implementation of the outlined partnerships and strategies while preserving optimal coordination between EU members in the long run. Whether the EU’s endeavor will pay dividends will also depend on the willpower of its member states to put aside their often-competitive attitude and prioritize collective benefits over national interests.
The current geopolitical context marked by mounting strategic uncertainty and growing great power competition has been a wakeup call for Brussels. Against these major systemic challenges, the EU has signaled the will to stand up for itself in the broader maritime region encompassing the NWIO, the Persian Gulf, and the Red Sea. Admittedly, becoming a reliable maritime security provider far beyond European waters represents an uphill struggle for the EU. Still, the renewed resolve that accompanied the reformulation of its naval policy approach speaks volumes about the desire of Brussels to retain strategic relevance in a rapidly evolving geopolitical order.
Leonardo Jacopo Maria Mazzucco is a researcher who focuses on the security affairs of the Gulf region. He is also an analyst at Gulf State Analytics (GSA), a Washington-based geopolitical risk consultancy. He has an MA degree in Comparative and International Relations from Ca’ Foscari University of Venice and an MA degree in Middle Eastern Studies from the Graduate School of Economics and International Relations (ASERI) from the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan, Italy. He tweets at: @mazz_Leonardo.
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