August 14, 2019
IntelBrief: Maritime Security in the Gulf
Amidst escalating tensions in the Persian Gulf, which has included attacks on commercial oil tankers in and around the Strait of Hormuz, officials from the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) recently met with their counterparts in Iran to discuss maritime security. The official visit of Emirati officials to Iran was the first in the last six years, perhaps signaling the possibility of future cooperation in some areas, including maritime border cooperation; maintaining open shipping lanes and protecting freedom of navigation; and the establishment of ongoing bilateral contacts between the coast guards and border security forces of the respective countries. Abu Dhabi and Tehran remain at odds across a number of critical geopolitical issues, including the war in Yemen and U.S.-led sanctions against Iran, which the U.A.E. is in favor of keeping.
Both the United States and the United Kingdom are exploring potential options to increase maritime security in the Gulf, although specific plans for a broader coalition including other Western countries still have not materialized. In a show of force, Washington has increased troop deployments to the region while London recently dispatched a second warship to help guard commercial vessels operating in the area. After rumors circulated speculating that Israel might be part of an American-led maritime security initiative in the Persian Gulf, Iran responded immediately by labeling Israel’s participation as a ‘clear threat’ to Iran’s national security.
Unlike its ally Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. appears to be moving toward a conciliatory posture that seeks to deescalate tensions with Iran through more robust diplomacy. This shift is indicative of a broader divergence between the U.A.E.’s leader Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ) and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). Most notably, the Emirates has reconsidered its stance in Yemen, where the disastrous Saudi-led war is spiraling out of control. Just this week, Yemen’s internationally-recognized government forces lost the southern city of Aden after fierce fighting. The center piece of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy is its relentless campaign against Iran for regional hegemony. Both Riyadh and Tehran sponsor various proxy forces, and Saudi Arabia has worked closely with the U.A.E. and others, including Egypt, to gain influence and provide backing to a range of strongmen, warlords, and armed militias in Yemen, Sudan, Libya, and Somalia, to name just a few countries.
Abu Dhabi now seems to be reconsidering the wisdom of Saudi foreign policy under MBS, which has produced few tangible victories of note, while elevating Riyadh’s reputation for brutality. Earlier this week, MBZ met with MBS and Saudi King Salman in Saudi Arabia to discuss the situation in Yemen. The Trump administration has continued to provide unabashed support to Saudi Arabia, despite the country’s record for human rights abuses and the destabilizing effects of Saudi intervention throughout the Middle East and North Africa. If the goal of Washington’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign against Iran is to get the regime to capitulate, it seems to be having the opposite effect. Rather than rally countries in the Gulf against Iran, the string of tanker incidents might have increased Tehran’s leverage, and in the process, pulled countries like the U.A.E. away from Saudi Arabia and closer toward more consistent and normalized relations with the leadership in Iran.
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