Building Security at Sea

The Combined Maritime Force (CMF) is a US-led, 34-member maritime partnership headquartered in Manama, Bahrain. Established in 2001, the CMF was born as a counter-terrorism initiative focused on promoting freedom of navigation and maritime security in the waters off the Gulf region. Among the world’s busiest sea-lanes of communication, the waterways surrounding the Arabian Peninsula are of critical relevance to the unabated flow of vessels sailing between Europe, Africa, and Asia.

Due to the dense concentration of critical transit waterways –– such as the Hormuz Strait, Bad El Mandeb, and the Suez Canal –– in a restricted geographical space, and the high volume of shipping across these pivotal intersections, even a minor disruption is likely to cause considerable harm to littoral and inland states.

The CMF has developed instruments specifically tailored to address threats such as piracy, illegal smuggling, and illicit activities.

The CMF has developed purpose-built instruments –– known as Combined Task Forces (CTFs) –– specifically tailored to address multi-faceted threats, such as piracy, illegal smuggling, and illicit activities by state and non-state actors. Known as the CMF’s operative arm, the CTFs are versatile and efficient tools to counter an ever-changing number of challenges inside and outside the Arabian Gulf.

Announced on April 13, 2022, the CMF has launched a fourth CTF specifically designed to operate in the waters between the Suez Canal and the Gulf of Aden. Aside from patrolling activities aimed at monitoring and deterring potential sea-based threats to seafarers and coastal areas, the CTF-153 will focus on capacity-building efforts to promote the interoperability of littoral naval forces.

With the CMF’s capacity to deploy additional naval assets to the region burdened by material constraints, it is unlikely to see a significant military build-up in the region. On the contrary, scaling up the operational capabilities of the naval units already operating in the area seems to be a more viable, cost-effective option for the CMF to boost a secure maritime environment. Indeed, as empowering regional navies and strengthening their interoperability capacities are some of the key drivers underpinning the new naval group, there is reason to believe that the CTF-153’s command – currently in the hands of the USS Mount Whitney amphibious command ship – will soon be handed over to the navy of a littoral state.

A Regional Quest for Leadership

With Red Sea garnering attention by states interested in securing an outpost in this strategic intersection and guaranteeing freedom of navigation in its critical waters, the region has rapidly become the theatre of mounting competition.

Historically, Egypt has considered Red Sea an area within its natural sphere of influence.

Historically, Egypt has considered Red Sea an area within its natural sphere of influence. The multi-billion revenues extracted from the Suez Canal’s transit fees –– which hit a record of $6.3 billion in 2021 –– and its extensive coastline looking out on the Red Sea have prompted Cairo to keep a vigilant eye on this water corridor. However, Egypt’s concerns have significantly increased over the last decade due to a gradual deterioration of the security environment at the Red Sea’s entry and exit points. Indeed, high levels of instability brought about by Jihadi-inspired terrorist groups in the Sinai peninsula and Iran-backed Houthi insurgents on the southern Red Sea’s shorelines have persuaded Egypt to double down on its maritime power projection.

On the one hand, Egypt has boosted its military profile by upgrading the operational capacities of its Soviet-era, second-hand navy. Based on an ambitious modernization plan, Cairo has significantly renovated its fleet by acquiring top-notch military vessels, such as the Italian-French multi-purpose FREMM frigates, and supporting the shipbuilding expertise of local companies, such as the GoWind-class corvette-manufacturer Alexandria Arsenal company. By consolidating state-of-the-art blue-water capabilities, the Egyptian navy is now well-endowed to extend its operational outreach from littoral areas to high seas. On the other hand, Cairo has strengthened its maritime response capacity in the Red Sea by developing a navy command specifically devoted to patrolling this critical region. The strategic shift in the Egyptian maritime doctrine mirrors the decision to inaugurate the Berenice interforce military base. Located in the Ras Banas peninsula, the new naval outpost serves a vast array of operational and tactical needs thanks to its docks capable of hosting military vessels of all kinds, a military hospital, and training facilities.

However, despite the positive momentum embarked on by the Egyptian navy during the last six years, the country’s inherent financial constraints and the emergence of new players in the Red Sea’s power game have prevented Egypt from rising as the leading regional powerhouse.

Saudi Arabia has most of its multi-billion mega-projects located on the Red Sea’s coast.

Saudi Arabia has most of its multi-billion mega-projects located on the Red Sea’s coast and has a vested interest in promoting a stable maritime environment and assuming the stewardship of political dynamics in the region. Indeed, the push to diversify the Saudi economy away from oil has prompted Riyadh to divert attention from the energy-rich, turbulent waters of the Gulf and focus on developing iconic futuristic cities and luxury tourism destinations on the apparently quieter western coast. Determined to protect the long-term sustainability of its national interests –– identified in these extremely vulnerable but highly lucrative assets –– Saudi Arabia has been forced to assume a more active role in its neighborhood.

From brokering a historic peace accord between Ethiopia and Eritrea in Jeddah to upgrading its blue-water force projection’s capacity, many initiatives adopted by Riyadh are intended to stabilize regional tensions and establish a secure maritime environment in the Red Sea. To further build up its leadership’s credentials, Riyadh inaugurated a coalition of riparian Arab and African states sharing the desire to keep the Red Sea’s commercial maritime routes safe. This group of like-minded states, which reunites Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Eritrea, Yemen, Sudan, Djibouti, and Somalia, is motivated by a common interest in countering sea-based threats, such as piracy, illegal smuggling activities, and low-intensity disruptions. Despite its limited deterrence capacity, the composite coalition has signaled Riyadh’s determination to re-define the Red Sea’s balance of power and nudge littoral states to assume positions more in tune with its strategic priorities.

Among the Red Sea’s non-riparian states, which have both the interests and the material resources to play a decisive role in this critical water corridor, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is undoubtedly at the forefront.  Since its official withdrawal from the Yemeni conflict theater in October 2019 and the closure of its naval base in Assab, Eritrea, the UAE has gradually scaled down its boots on the ground in the southern Red Sea’s basin and disengaged from front line military operations. Based on the deployment of special counter-terrorism units in strategic coastal outposts, the UAE has re-oriented its tactical approach to regional tensions pursuant to a “Straits Diplomacy” policy. Despite the significant rationalization of its military presence in the region, UAE still preserves a densely-knitted network of coastal outposts that allows Abu Dhabi to retain its strategic depth and project influence in sensitive areas across the Bab El Mandeb Strait and off the Yemeni coast while keeping troops away from the firing lines.

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From the Sharm El-Sheikh trilateral meeting to the Aqaba talks, along with the Negev Summit, the UAE has recently been involved in several high-profile diplomatic initiatives under the Abraham Accords’ banner, confirming the country’s ambition to be a core orchestrator in this strategic water corridor. Through this renewed campaign of low-intensity political activism, the UAE has signaled that not only does it have the military might, but also the diplomatic credentials to present itself as a major player in the Red Sea power game.

Although the Red Sea basin has increasingly become an area of contention for regional players vying for power, common concerns have persuaded competitors to tone down divergences, compartmentalize differences, and develop concerted solutions, especially within the Abraham Accords’ framework. From the UAE-Bahrain-Israel-US joint naval drill in November 2021 to the 2022 International Maritime Exercise –– a five-day multilateral naval drill that saw the Israeli and Saudi navies exercising together for the first time last February, the Red Sea’s balance of power seems to have set the course towards a new equilibrium.

Iran and the Houthis: A Next-Door Threat

Sitting atop billions of dollars in fossil fuel reserves and with a mounting thirst to evade the sanction-induced isolation strangling its economy, Iran looks at the Red Sea waterway with growing interest to export its natural resources. Despite Iran’s lack of direct access to the sea and a second-class navy experiencing a modernization run, Tehran relies on its regional proxies –– such as the Houthis –– to overcome its geographic and material limitations and project influence over this strategic corridor.

Iran looks at the Red Sea waterway with growing interest to export its natural resources.

Born-and-bred in the impervious highlands of northern Yemen, the Houthis are down to their DNA a land-based group. The networks underpinning their military clout and socio-economic heft are built on various forms of allegiance combining tribal and religious elements. However, the paradigm of their being a land-locked power seemed to end in mid-2014, when, after having captured Sanaa, the Houthis moved south-west and forcibly entered Hodeidah, the second-largest Yemeni coastal city after Aden. Endowed with a well-equipped port and critical logistic infrastructure, Hodeidah has emerged as a strategic lifeline for the Houthis by allowing the group to reduce its dependency on inland transport routes and diversify the entry points for Iranian shipments need to refurnish their weapons stockpiles. With Hodeidah becoming the maritime linchpin of the group’s territorial expansion ambitions, it is not a surprise that the Houthis have continued to exercise their influence over the city even in the wake of the 2018 Stockholm Agreement, the UN-sponsored ceasefire deal ending the Saudi-UAE-led coalition’s battle to recapture the city.

As its grip tightened over the city, the Houthi insurgent group has gradually turned the territories under its control into a launchpad to project instability in the Red Sea. Based on hybrid warfare, the primary tools at the disposal of the Houthis are asymmetric instruments such as missiles, unmanned combat aerial vehicles, sea mines, and booby-trapped boats. The weaponization of the Red Sea’s waters through asymmetric warfare capabilities has become a predominant pattern of the Houthi strategy to undermine the regional balance of power.

During the last four months, the Houthis have been the protagonists of several low-intensity disruption activities in this busy water corridor. Indeed, the Houthis seized a UAE-flagged ship –– the Rwabee –– while cruising off Hodeidah, shot a missile in the Red Sea waters, and hit Saudi Aramco’s oil depot in the coastal city of Jeddah. These attacks signal that the Houthis are maintaining privileged access to Iranian military hardware and mastering the technical skills to inflict severe damage to the region’s vulnerable assets, especially commercial vessels and coastal energy infrastructure. As the Houthi attacks’ capacities grow in accuracy and gain in distance, asymmetric threats remain one of the greatest uncertainties looming over the Red Sea’s future.

Mending the US-Gulf Rift

With Washington looking to the Gulf states to diminish its security obligations, and the Middle East assuming a peripheral role in the American strategic interests, a difference in priorities has gradually emerged between the US and the Gulf states. Mounting doubts about the future of the US’s security commitment to the Middle East have led to a progressive deterioration of bilateral ties, which ultimately resulted in a severe confidence crisis among Washington’s regional partners. With frustration and resentment on the rise, the mismatch of expectations between the US and its historic partners has been the primary driver of a simmering diplomatic rough patch.

A difference in priorities has gradually emerged between the US and the Gulf states.

With US-Gulf bilateral relations hitting an all-time low, the new CTF-153 comes at a critical moment for this decade-long partnership. Following the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s apologies for Washington’s delayed reply to Houthi attacks targeting the UAE and the decision to redeploy Patriot antimissile interceptors to Saudi Arabia, the CTF-153 launch is part of a number of calibrated moves intended to send to the Gulf monarchies reassuring messages about the US’ political will and military readiness to deliver on its security promises.

What’s Next?

Though the CTF-153 is an apparent attempt by Washington to cool tensions with the Gulf monarchies, it is too early to tell if the new naval group will be a major breakthrough in the Red Sea power game. Though providing more security guarantees reflects the US’s strong commitment to its regional partners’ security, it is unlikely to tilt the regional balance of power significantly. Fixing a broken security environment and building longterm stability in a tension-filled maritime space needs transformative vision and enduring political support.

This begs the question as to what extent the CTF-153 will be a positive platform to enhance a secure maritime power structure in the Red Sea. Part of the answer is likely to depend on the evolution of the Yemeni conflict after the Ramadan ceasefire and the capacity of regional players to tone down rivalling ambitions.

Should regional players be able to continue de-escalating the conflict and converge upon shared interests, the CTF-153 is likely to represent a significant opportunity for them to build up more efficient deterrence capabilities, scale up the interoperability of their naval forces, and foster a cooperative security architecture in this strategic waterway.