June 9, 2023

IntelBrief: UAE Maritime Posture Reflects Strains with Washington

AP Photo/Jon Gambrell

Bottom Line Up Front

  • The United Arab Emirates (UAE) temporarily suspended participation in a U.S.-led Gulf maritime security mission, perceived as signaling their doubts about the U.S. commitment to deterring and containing Iran.
  • UAE and U.S. officials sought to downplay the UAE maritime mission suspension, with the latter depicting it as a routine rotation rather than a departure from the cooperative arrangement.
  • The UAE’s departure has also been seen by some as an overture to Iran as the UAE and its ally, Saudi Arabia, seek to engage Iranian officials and lower tensions in the Gulf.
  • China might seek to take advantage of Gulf leadership doubts about their U.S. partnership and expand its security role in the Gulf and broader Middle East.

On May 31, the UAE confirmed that it had ceased participating in the U.S.-led Combined Maritime Forces (CMF), a Gulf security coalition established after the September 11 attacks. Per its website, the CMF’s main focus is tackling issues related to narcotics trafficking, smuggling, and piracy as well as improving regional cooperation and capacity building. Tangentially, its assets may also be used to support environmental and humanitarian responses. However, it is perhaps most geopolitically notable for being used to counter Iranian attacks on commercial ships. The CMF coalition includes not only the United States and all six Gulf states of the Gulf Cooperation Council – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Bahrain, Oman, and Qatar – but also several European states, Australia, and an array of Asian partners. In confirming their understanding that the UAE had stepped back from the CMF, U.S. officials told journalists that a contingent of Emirati military staff departed CMF headquarters in Bahrain in March, in what they described as a “routine rotation.” Contributing militaries typically cycle forces into the coalition's roster as they become available and retrieve them when needed elsewhere.

Although the CMF was established primarily to counter al-Qaeda and other violent Islamist organizations, it has evolved into an effort to contain and deter Iran. The CMF has been extensively involved in operations to interdict shipments from Iran to armed factions in the region that Iran supports, particularly the Houthi movement in Yemen. The CMF is headquartered in Bahrain, which, as host of the U.S. Fifth Fleet, is the hub of U.S. and allied naval operations in the Gulf. A related Bahrain-based, U.S.-led coalition maritime operation, the International Maritime Security Construct, was established in 2019 to deter Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Navy attacks and seizures on international commercial shipping through the Gulf.

Experts immediately interpreted the UAE’s operational halt as the latest sign that UAE leadership harbors doubts concerning the United States’ commitment to Gulf security as well as to deterring and containing Iran. A Wall Street Journal article specifically attributed the UAE pullout to Emirati official displeasure that the United States had not prevented Iran’s recent seizure of two civilian tanker ships, one of which was seized while transiting between two UAE ports. On May 3, the IRGC Navy seized a Panama-flagged tanker as it sailed from the Port of Abu Dhabi to another of the seven emirates, Fujairah, and on April 27, seized a ship transporting crude oil for Chevron. Iran’s seizure of commercial ships in or near UAE waters jeopardizes the UAE’s international reputation as a safe haven for trade and investment in the region. According to the White House and the Pentagon, Iran has “harassed, attacked, or interfered” with 15 internationally flagged merchant vessels since 2021.

The U.S. Navy said it witnessed the May 3 tanker seizure from an unmanned drone circling overhead, but did not receive a distress call from the ship’s crew and took no action to stop the capture. In response to that incident, the United States announced an increase in allied patrols in and around the Strait of Hormuz, but for the time being, would not send additional U.S. ships or personnel to the region as part of the patrols. Experts drew parallels between the Emirati response to the latest incidents with previous UAE complaints that the United States did not retaliate against the ballistic missile and armed drone strikes on the UAE by the Iran-backed Houthis of Yemen in January 2022, nor did it intercept or forcefully respond to the drone and cruise missile strikes that knocked out nearly half of Saudi oil production in September 2019 in an attack the Saudis claimed was orchestrated by the Iranians.

The UAE’s suspension of participation in the CMF comes as it partners with their key regional ally, Saudi Arabia, to engage Iranian officials in a bid to lower tensions with their regional rival. Both Gulf states have altered their public stances toward Tehran to downplay their support for U.S., Israeli, or Gulf state military action against Iran, even if some Gulf officials might quietly applaud such action. The UAE’s absence from CMF operations, even if temporary, represents an overture to Tehran. Emirati and Saudi leaders have also entertained expanded relations with other great powers, particularly China, suggesting to Washington that they remain open to alternative security partnerships. In March, Saudi Arabia and Iran reached an agreement, finalized under China’s auspices, to restore full diplomatic relations and engage politically, culturally, and economically. China’s role in the rapprochement suggested to experts and U.S. officials that China is seeking to take advantage of Gulf state doubts about the U.S. security commitment, expand Beijing’s role in the Gulf beyond investment and trade, and displace the U.S. diplomatic monopoly within the region’s security sphere.

Still, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and the other Gulf states appear unwilling to open major rifts with the United States, which remains their main security partner. The UAE foreign ministry issued a statement specifically refuting the media characterization of the pullout as reflecting displeasure with the United States. U.S. officials similarly sought to downplay any strains with the UAE, which hosts several thousand U.S. military personnel at its Al Dhafra Air Base, Jebel Ali port, and other facilities, and remains pivotal to the U.S. security architecture in the Gulf. U.S. officials told journalists on May 31 that the United States had received no formal notification from Abu Dhabi of any plans to stop participating in the CMF. “The UAE is currently a CMF partner,” Commander Tim Hawkins, U.S. Fifth Fleet spokesperson, reportedly told journalists. He added: “Regarding their level of participation as a partner, we leave it to our individual partners to speak to that.” The mutual downplaying statements suggest that, at some point in the not-too-distant future, the UAE could rejoin the CMF operation, perhaps after receiving some private reassurances that the U.S. mission to secure the Gulf from Iranian aggression will endure.