President Joe Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia has highlighted the resurfacing of the Middle East as a region of significant importance to U.S. national interests. Gone are the days when policymakers could advocate for “pivoting” to other regions without undermining America’s strategic positioning in the Middle East. Admittedly, the United States maintains an array of critical relationships and interests in the Middle East that remain central to American interests abroad. And as the Biden administration has come to realize, there is no substitute for face-to-face diplomacy to advance those interests.
Contrary to mainstream thinking, President Biden’s attendance at the Jeddah Summit was not simply about prodding Saudi Arabia to increase oil production. No doubt, a significant portion of the negotiations—and much media attention—revolved around the global energy crisis and ways to address its consequent calamities. However, the main objective of Biden’s visit to the Kingdom should be recognized as more far-reaching than a simple effort to woo the Saudi leadership; the United States set out to reboot its strategic relations with regional partners, all while emphasizing the enduring U.S. commitment to regional security amid looming geopolitical uncertainty.
Judging by the administration’s messaging in the aftermath of the trip, maritime security and the protection of the critical waterways of the Red Sea have emerged as a particular priority for Washington. Indeed, the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) has recently undertaken several important measures to ensure Red Sea security. In April 2022, the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) unveiled task force CTF-153, tasked with the responsibility of safeguarding the waterways of the Red Sea. The U.S.-led task force will seek to enhance regional capacity and work with partners to deter all illicit activities and threats to the waters of the Red Sea, including in the increasingly volatile straits of Bab El Mandeb and the Gulf of Aden. The policy reflects a significant shift in the United States’ approach to the region. This would be the first time in 13 years that the United States established a new task force within the framework of the U.S.-led Combined Maritime Forces, which involves the naval forces of 34 states, an international maritime command originally established to deal with piracy in the region.
All in all, the establishment of CTF-153 demonstrates the United States’ proactive commitment to regional security, paving the way toward the first serious and concentrated effort to protect and deter threats to the Red Sea. More importantly, this new initiative could reverse the growing sense of mistrust between the U.S. and its regional partners and promote a more comprehensive approach to regional security in the Middle East. As greater attention is dedicated towards the Red Sea, policy-makers in the Middle East and Washington now have a common platform to rally around the defense of one of the most important waterways in the world. Although details concerning the contribution of nations and the disposition of new American assets to the Red Sea have yet to come to light, the United States is likely to solicit the support of both coastal and non-coastal states with entrenched interests in the Red Sea. The task force will most certainly look to include Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and even potentially the non-littoral states of the Gulf Cooperation Council given their rising stakes within the Red Sea Corridor. Moreover, this initiative could, for the first time, include joint Israeli and Arab naval assets under one unified command structure, considering Israel’s access to the Red Sea via its southern port of Eilat.
A Maritime Domain of Growing Importance—and Insecurity
In recent years, the Red Sea has witnessed a notable rise in military activity, especially around the critical Bab El Mandeb Strait and the Gulf of Aden. Today, the Houthis’ persistent targeting of vessels with armed drones and forcible vessel seizures marks one of the chief sources of instability in the Red Sea. Likewise, Iran’s recent increased presence in the Red Sea may develop into another source of insecurity for coastal nations, raising the risk of a possible showdown between Iran and its regional rivals. According to recent statements by Israeli officials, Iran’s naval expansion may present “a widespread regional and global threat” to commercial activity and the global energy trade.
The Red Sea’s trading routes admittedly serve as a critical economic pathway for the world’s major economies. Roughly 10% of international trade passes through the Red Sea, including vital goods and commodities such as foodstuffs, hydrocarbons, and precious metals. Any disturbance within the Red Sea would severely affect the security of regional states. It would also harm the strategic interests of the United States, which has long sought to ensure the peaceful and unobstructed movement of goods through this critical waterway.
In the absence of multilateral alternatives or a regional-led security structure, CTF-153 represents the most promising collaborative effort to safeguard the maritime routes of the Red Sea. Admittedly, the launch of this task force comes at a turning point for CENTCOM as it transitions away from its wartime duties toward a more permanent strategic posture in the Middle East. With the end of major combat operations, CENTCOM can dedicate more attention to formalizing cooperative international arrangements aimed at tackling regional security threats. To this end, the United States has facilitated numerous naval drills over the past year alone, with the objective of fostering greater cohesion between its regional partners. In September 2021, Israeli and American warships performed a combined maritime patrol in the Red Sea, the first of their kind since Israel’s integration into CENTCOM’s Area of Responsibility (AOR). The United States has also capitalized on the thawing effect of the Abraham Accords by leading a multilateral naval drill with Bahrain, the UAE, and Israel in the Red Sea. The United States has also solicited the support of the Jordanian Navy in establishing a naval hub in the Port of Aqaba to support the U.S. Navy unmanned drone task force. Finally, Egypt’s recent integration into the U.S.-led Combined Maritime Forces not only indicates Cairo’s atypical willingness to work with international partners, but the importance of American leadership in forging joint security initiatives.
American Leadership and the Challenges to (and Payoffs of) Cooperation
The launch of CTF-153 and Washington’s recent multilateral efforts in the Red Sea reflect a re-orientation of the United States’ strategic priorities. Indeed, the U.S. appears willing to incorporate more states into collective security initiatives and conduct additional capability enhancement missions, rather than assert unilateral American power throughout the region. While many nations may find it attractive to jump onboard, CENTCOM must nevertheless carefully vet the regional actors it wishes to incorporate into its exercises and arrangements. Soliciting the support of other states will ultimately depend on partner enthusiasm for the endeavor and the capabilities they may provide the coalition.
In short, building a joint task force involves more than rallying nations around one overarching shared interest. It will require a thoughtful and systematic process of managing expectations, forging shared outcomes, and mitigating internal rivalries. In that regard, the real challenge for multilateral cooperation will emerge at the strategic level. Regional rivalries and outright suspicion between certain states within the framework could sink any initiative before it takes to sea. A major maritime player like Egypt may be wary of the presence of foreign navies in the Red Sea, which it may consider an encroachment on its traditional sphere of influence. Moreover, the current contest for influence playing out over Red Sea ports between the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, and others may prove another significant obstacle for the U.S.-led effort, as each side seeks to achieve its own objectives irrespective of the coalition’s cohesion.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the U.S. must address looming fears over its perceived “exit” from the Middle East. Trust in the United States’ commitment to regional security is key to the success of CTF-153, let alone any of Washington’s other regional ambitions. Given the overarching challenges to region-wide collaborative efforts, any multilateral initiative is bound to falter without the active and present leadership of U.S. armed forces.
Nevertheless, the current geopolitical context in the Middle East presents a unique opportunity that should be seized. Typically, regional coordination has a tendency to emerge around common threats. The Houthis’ ongoing attacks on vessels and Iran’s menacing presence in the Red Sea could serve that objective, expediting and validating CTF-153’s mission and vision.
The clear advantages of retaining a joint maritime force capable of responding to destabilizing activities notwithstanding, the real benefit of this initiative revolves around its ability to enhance the capabilities of regional navies. More concretely, CTF-153 has the potential to build the capacity of regional navies, improve interoperability between the players involved, and provide the operational know-how needed to operate in the current maritime environment. The United States should welcome these developments as it seeks to forge new partnerships to enhance regional security. So should Washington’s regional partners, especially those that directly border the Red Sea. Saudi Arabia, which has previously sought to bolster red sea security through an array of activities, is set to benefit the most out of this multilateral task force in light of rising insecurities emanating from the Yemeni conflict.
The establishment of CTF-153 is an important step in realizing the White House’s goal of enhancing “Strategic Partnerships” based on “principled American leadership.” It represents a positive and action-oriented example of U.S. policy in the Middle East that proactively responds to imminent and ongoing threats in this vital part of the world.
The advantages of this task force are wide-ranging, establishing the first serious and concentrated effort to deter threats to security in the Red Sea. However, preserving the security of the maritime sphere and, by extension, entrenched U.S. interests in the region requires consistent engagement with regional partners. Improving trust among Washington’s long-time regional partners is key to the initiative’s success and to the safekeeping of core U.S. interests in the Middle East.
Failing to manage these important relationships or sufficiently supporting partner nations may well lead to a catastrophe that neither regional actors nor the United States can afford given the fluid geopolitical environment. Naturally, building interoperability and the necessary capabilities to safeguard the vital waterways of the Red Sea will not happen overnight; it may take years before CENTCOM strikes the right balance vis a vis maritime burden sharing and effective collaboration schemes with participating nations. In either case, as the United States considers its future force posture in the Middle East, this new initiative could serve to reverse years of mistrust between the U.S. and its regional partners, improve the capabilities of trusted and friendly states, and promote a comprehensive approach to regional security.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.