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Amid Growing Naval Tensions, the UAE Charts Its Own Course

On May 31, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced its withdrawal from the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF), a U.S.-led multinational maritime partnership that includes 38 countries and conducts a broad range of naval security activities in the waters surrounding the Arabian Peninsula. While its withdrawal from the organization was only recently disclosed to the public, the Emirati decision to pull back from the CMF dates back to March, according to a statement by the Emirati Foreign Affairs Ministry. Two days later, on June 2, Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN) Rear Admiral Shahram Irani announced Tehran’s intention to enter a purported maritime coalition along with several coastal states in the Gulf and Indian Ocean area to protect critical shipping lanes. Although the timing of the two developments is mostly a coincidence, and Iran’s call to form a loosely-defined naval alliance has not yet been confirmed by other regional stakeholders, the pair of events speaks volumes about the minor and major adjustments redrawing the naval balance of power in the Gulf region.

Troubled Waters

The two naval moves occur amid intensifying saber-rattling between the United States and Iran in and around the Strait of Hormuz. Since late April, U.S.-Iran tensions have markedly increased, with the naval forces of the two countries engaging in a tit-for-tat confrontation played out through hostile naval interactions, the seizure of commercial vessels, and growing informational warfare.

On April 20, Iranian naval officials claimed that their submarine, Fateh, forced the U.S. Navy nuclear-powered submarine the USS Florida to exit Iranian territorial waters and surface while transiting through the Strait of Hormuz. The U.S. rejected this allegation, while confirming that the Florida was deployed to the Middle East to support the Bahrain-based U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet in early April. A few days later, amid a sanctions enforcement operation targeting Iranian oil export, the U.S. seized the oil cargo aboard the Marshall Islands-flagged tanker Suez Rajan, which U.S. officials claimed was illegally exporting Iranian oil in violation of international law.

Iran swiftly reacted to the U.S. seizure. On April 27, the IRIN took control of the Marshall Islands-flagged tanker Advantage Sweet, a Turkish-operated ship which had been bound for Houston, Texas. According to Iranian officials, the oil-laden tanker was involved in a collision with an unidentified Iranian vessel, and the seizure was intended to ascertain the accident’s circumstances. On May 3, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGC-N) forces also boarded the Panama-flagged oil tanker Niovi. Transiting unloaded from Dubai’s Port Rashid to Fujairah, the Greek-owned ship was intercepted by IRGC-N fast-attack boats and forced to change course toward the Iranian coast. At the time of writing, both oil tankers are still held captive by Iranian authorities, probably moored at the port of Bandar Abbas.

The most recent episode occurred on June 4, when the U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS McFaul (DDG 74) and British Royal Navy frigate HMS Lancaster (F 229) responded to a radio distress call from an internationally flagged merchant vessel transiting the Strait of Hormuz. According to the U.S. Navy, three Iranian fast-attack craft suspiciously approached the commercial ship, prompting the intervention of the American and British vessels and the departure of the Iranian boats. Iranian authorities provided a different account of the event, dubiously claiming that its naval assets had come to assist the merchant ship after it was approached by other unidentified boats. While there is a long track record of tensions between the United States and Iran in the sensitive Gulf waters, the recent accelerating series of hostile encounters calls for deeper scrutiny.

CMF: Origins and Evolution

Against the backdrop of Operation Enduring Freedom, the U.S. military operation in Afghanistan that opened the “war on terror,” the CMF was established in February 2002 to conduct counter-terrorism operations in Middle Eastern waters. The naval coalition’s original aim was to ensure the free flow of commerce and promote a safe maritime environment in the waterways surrounding the Arabian Peninsula. The CMF launched the Combined Task Force (CTF) 150 to provide the military means necessary to achieve its stated goals.

However, as the nature of the threats against the peninsula grew in complexity and the maritime areas to police expanded, so did CMF’s Maritime Security Operations (MSO) and Area of Operations (AOO). Today, twenty-one years after its creation, the CMF operates five Task Forces, separately devoted to deterring unlawful use of the ocean by non-state actors, fighting piracy, conducting “capacity-building efforts” in the Suez Canal and Gulf of Aden, and providing tailored training opportunities to CMF partner nations based on guidance from the U.S. Navy. CTF 150 and CTF 152 (established in 2004) conduct operations to deter and disrupt the unlawful use of the high sea by illicit non-state actors, respectively outside and inside the Gulf. Inaugurated in 2009, CTF 151 has a specific piracy mission-based mandate and aims to deny modern-day pirates a risk-free maritime environment to carry out their criminal activities against commercial vessels. CTF 153, launched in April 2022, conducts international maritime security and capacity-building efforts in the maritime region between the Suez Canal and the Gulf of Aden. Most recently, in late May 2023, the CMF inaugurated its fifth operative arm: CTF 154. The mandate of CMF’s brand-new Task Force focuses on providing tailored training opportunities to CMF partner-nations and aims to improve their operational capabilities by sharing U.S. Navy’s best practices. While CTF 154’s training events will revolve around five core areas – maritime awareness, maritime law, maritime interdiction, maritime rescue and assistance, and leadership development, drills about next-generation naval warfare solutions based on artificial intelligence and unmanned systems are excepted to feature on the agenda.

As a purpose-built instrument designed to tackle multi-faceted threats, the Task Forces have allowed the CMF to counter an ever-changing number of maritime security challenges in a versatile and efficient fashion, and the fact that the naval coalition has continued to evolve beyond its original aim to meet new security threats confirms its high degree of flexibility and reactivity.

Burdened by small fleets and a lack of experience in modern naval warfare, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states have historically turned to external guarantors with greater military assets and proven combat expertise to ensure maritime security in the Gulf. However, in spite of these material constraints, some GCC states have found in the CMF a framework to enhance their naval force projection capabilities.

Among the Gulf Arab states, Kuwait stands out for its impressive rounds as a Task Force commander under the CMF umbrella. By combining the contribution of the Kuwaiti Navy and the Kuwaiti Coast Guard, the country’s naval forces have led the multinational coalition’s operative arms eleven times. Saudi Arabia comes second, on par with Bahrain, with four rounds each. Since 2018, the Royal Saudi Navy has taken command of CTF 150 three times, most recently in mid-July 2022, while the Saudi Border Guard led CTF 152 (combating malign non-state actors and protecting key maritime assets such as oil platforms) for a one-year term until September 2021. With its small navy composed mostly of brown-water patrol boats, Bahrain led CTF 151 (anti-piracy action) for one round and is currently completing its third command in CTF 152. By contrast, before its departure from the organization, the UAE assumed the leadership of a Task Force (152) only two times, with its last round dating back more than a decade ago. Qatar and Oman have never headed a Task Force.

Although the CMF does not demand a specific level of participation from its members, and the number of commands is not the only measuring instrument to assess a partner nation’s commitment to the maritime coalition, there is more than meets the eye. Indeed, this data helps to clarify which countries see their membership in the CMF not only as a mutually beneficial partnership, but also as an opportunity to showcase their willingness to meaningfully participate in the burdensome effort of keeping shipping lanes free and safe. By volunteering to lead several Task Forces, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain have demonstrated their resolve to take up the baton of regional maritime security within multilateral frameworks.

The growing activism of the Kuwaiti, Saudi, and Bahrain Navies under the CMF umbrella also suggests that they conceive the naval coalition as a valuable opportunity to sharpen their maritime force projection capabilities through close cooperation with Western maritime powers. In this regard, they have sought to bolster their naval credentials by actively participating in merchant shipping reassurance missions, full-spectrum naval exercises, and technical training. Although the decade-long upgrading and restructuring of the Emirati maritime force would have allowed the country to play a much more visible role within the CMF, the UAE has instead tended to keep a low profile and narrow its engagement with the partner-nations to a handful of activities, primarily simultaneous joint patrols and training courses over flashier, more high-profile actions.

Navigating through a Multipolar Gulf

Since the UAE Foreign Ministry only mentioned the “ongoing evaluation of effective security cooperation with all partners” to explain the Emirati withdrawal from the CMF, it is difficult to properly gauge the substantive reasons behind the country’s withdrawal. However, contextualizing the UAE’s decision within the broader context of tense diplomatic ties between Abu Dhabi and Washington might help unravel the tangle.

Over the past few years, U.S.-UAE bilateral relations have experienced clear signs of turbulence. While they have never hit rock bottom, several episodes have contributed to sour the decades-long partnership. Starting with the 2019 Fujairah bombings and continuing with the 2022 Abu Dhabi missile and drone attacks, the UAE has grown increasingly distrustful of Washington’s ability or willingness to deliver on its security promises. Alarmed by a perception of faltering U.S. guarantees to regional security, the UAE has sought to set up more structured security arrangements. Although Washington has since taken steps to enhance its defensive posture in the Gulf and display credible deterrence against the looming Iranian threat, verbal reassurances and additional deployments of air and naval assets to the country remain insufficient in the eyes of the Emiratis to meet their security needs.

In addition to simmering skepticism about U.S. security commitments, the acknowledgment that the global world order is gradually tilting towards a multipolar system has prompted the UAE to accelerate its push to cultivate deeper ties with alternative security partners. While the UAE has inked multi-million arms purchase deals with both Russia and China, it is with Beijing that Abu Dhabi has made significant strides toward a more conventional security partnership. In late 2021, it was revealed that construction was reportedly underway on a Chinese naval facility at Port Khalifa—a development that elicited visible anger from Washington. Soon after, the construction was halted over Washington’s concerns that a potential Chinese military outpost in the country could have been used as a launchpad to gather intelligence material about the activities of U.S. troops stationed at bases across the Gulf. More than a year later, the contentious construction site sparked new debate after media reports claimed that building had resumed, citing leaked classified documents. The extent to which the Emiratis are determined to grant China a strategic outpost in the Gulf region remains unclear, but these developments underline that Abu Dhabi is actively exploring alternative solutions to address its security concerns, even if this means approaching Washington’s competitors.

Still, consistent doubts remain about how far Beijing is willing to go in order to meet Abu Dhabi’s security requests. Although there is still a slim possibility that China might secure a naval foothold on the Emirati coast in the future, past and current trends highlight that there is little chance of China replacing the U.S. as the UAE’s security guarantor. There are two reasons to be skeptical of China’s long-term intentions in the Gulf. First, warships of the Chinese navy have scant familiarity with conducting naval operations in this critical maritime environment. Most of the times that Chinese naval assets enter Gulf waters, it has historically been to take part in arms shows, such as NAVDEX in Abu Dhabi, and not to perform maritime security missions. Therefore, China’s effective naval combat credentials remain hard to ascertain. Second, although the bitter antagonism between the UAE and Iran has eased amid the present de-escalation push, Tehran still dominates the Emirati threat perception and remains the country’s greatest security challenge. In accordance with its reputation as a neutral trading partner, Beijing is clearly reluctant to choose sides between Tehran and Abu Dhabi. Fearful of jeopardizing its comfortable relations with both shores of the Gulf, China might be even less willing to hold Iran accountable for its harassment of commercial vessels and interference with free navigation—a stance that will preserve its relations with Iran but will do it no favors with Emirati leaders.

Consequently, Abu Dhabi’s withdrawal from the CMF should not be taken at face value, but framed in the broader context of the U.S.-China rivalry and the UAE’s push for geostrategic relevance. As the struggle to redefine the global balance of power intensifies, the UAE aims to hedge between opposing forces to better secure its national strategic interests. Pulling off from the naval coalition is not the first, and will not be the last, Emirati move to manifest the country’s resolve in crafting a more independent path.

Implications for Washington

Having one of the U.S.’s long-lasting security partners in the Middle East leaving the CMF—immediately after the establishment of a new Task Force purposely designed to train regional friendly countries, no less—does not bode well for Washington’s efforts to scale down its military footprint in the region. The better the U.S. partners in the Middle East can stand up for themselves in the security domain, the fewer personnel and assets the U.S. would need to keep deployed to the region, giving Washington greater leeway to pursue its strategic goals in the Indo-Pacific. As a result, it is of pivotal importance for the U.S. to avoid future defections and persuade its Middle Eastern partners of the benefits of closely cooperating with Washington.

The UAE may not be finished with its withdrawals from U.S.-led security and political institutions. The chances that Abu Dhabi continues severing its security partnership with Washington are slim, but they do exist. Therefore, the U.S. should pay closer attention to calls for attention coming from its Gulf partner, and carefully consider how it responds to these manifestations of uneasiness. As of now, Abu Dhabi’s withdrawal is more likely to result in a marginal political reset in U.S.-UAE ties rather than an irreversible diplomatic cleavage. From bilateral relations to minilateral formats, such as the Negev Summit and the I2U2 initiative, the two countries still have many avenues to cultivate deep cooperation. Most importantly, the UAE remains an active member of the International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC), a U.S.-led military coalition launched by the then-Trump administration amid the peak of at-sea incidents in mid-2019. The security platform also includes two other regional stakeholders, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Through its operative arm, Coalition Task Force Sentinel, the IMSC aims to ensure free navigation for commercial vessels and deter “state-sponsored malign activity” in the bodies of water around the Arabian Peninsula by carrying out surveillance and monitoring operations. As the IMSC regularly organized maritime drills, the latter remains a meaningful conduit for the U.S. and UAE Navies to boost their security cooperation and interoperability in alternative to the CMF.

To conclude, although the UAE is likely to stay its neutral course in the simmering West-East rivalry, to continue openly voicing its uneasiness vis-à-vis perceived waning U.S. commitments, and to invest in more diverse security relationships, Abu Dhabi has no real benefits from further scaling down its ties with Washington. Indeed, even though the country is less dependent on U.S. military assistance and has developed a strong army, it still needs the support of major partners with proven military capabilities and a favorable political will—particularly in the not-unlikely scenario that the current lukewarm relations with Iran abruptly tilt again toward escalation.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Issue: Defense & Security
Country: UAE

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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 tweets at: @mazz_Leonardo.


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