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Navigating the Gulf’s Maritime Security and Port Politics

Featured Speakers: Professor David Des Roches, Bilal Y. Saab, Dr. Cinzia Bianco, and Dr. Geoffrey Gresh.

Maritime security in the waters of the Gulf has in recent years experienced ongoing tensions. Rising security issues in the Strait of Hormuz, including the hijacking of ships and attacks on oil tankers, represent a major threat to the security of the global oil and gas market. So far, attempts to secure the Strait of Hormuz and other waterways near the Gulf have led to the creation of the International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC) in November 2019 by the United States and other European and GCC states. To secure their commercial interests, the European countries have established their own maritime security initiative, the European Maritime Awareness in the Strait of Hormuz (EMASOH), on January 20, 2020, reaching full operational capacity for one of its maritime surveillance missions in the strait the following month. The security and economic return of GCC states’ ports also emerged as a crucial factor. Therefore, ports that are considered relatively safer, like Yanbu on the Red Sea or Khor Fakkan, Sohar, Salalah, and Duqm in the Gulf of Oman, could bring economic opportunities for these states and become central sites for the economic and security development of their respective countries.

In parallel with the growing maritime security challenges in the Gulf and its surroundings, the GCC states have increased their investments in ports to improve their position within global maritime trade. However, over the past decade, attacks on vessels, including docked targets, have exposed the vulnerabilities of several ports’ security arrangements. Therefore, GCC countries have focused  on protection of their maritime infrastructures and related free zones. As a clear example, the UAE ports introduced their own autonomous security boats, while also increasing cooperation with international actors in this regard.

In the coming years, what trends are likely to be seen with regard to maritime security in the Gulf? How can the GCC states further protect and expand their critical maritime infrastructure? What steps can be taken to curb the danger posed by malign actors in the Red Sea, Bab-el-Mandeb, and Hormuz straits? And what additional role, if any, should the United States and Europe play in safeguarding international commerce?

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