TIC Analysis l

Dynamics of Persian Gulf: Saudi Arabia has decided to join the international alliance for the safety and protection of maritime navigation known as the International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC), its Ministry of Defence announced on 18 September. It said the alliance’s aim is to protect merchant ships of participating countries as they pass through maritime corridors and counter threats to global trade and energy security. The United Arab Emirates also said that it would join the U.S.-led maritime coalition.

Both countries have joined  neighboring Bahrain, along with the United Kingdom and Australia. The announcement came as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in the UAE for a brief stopover after visiting Saudi Arabia. Both countries share a strategic location as they are situated near the three main maritime chokepoints of Bab-el-Mandeb, Straits of Hormuz and Suez canal.

The decisions of both nations came in the wake of two drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais. Twenty-five drones and missiles were used in the attack that forced the kingdom to shut down half of its oil production, Saudi Arabia has said. The attack took out 5.7 million barrels per day of crude. The USA and Saudi Arabia have suggested Iranian responsibility for the attack.

Iran has warned of a crushing response to any military strike after the attacks on Saudi oil sites blamed by Washington on Tehran, though it said the Islamic Republic had no desire for conflict in the Gulf region. In a letter sent on Monday to the United States via the Swiss embassy, which represents U.S. interests in Iran, Tehran said it “denies and condemns claims” by U.S. officials that “Tehran was behind the attacks.”

A pertinent point is that the International Maritime Security Construct is perceived by many observers as an anti Iran coalition. The multinational maritime alliance was proposed by the U.S. in June after attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf which Washington blamed on Iran. Under a plan detailed the following month, the U.S. said it would provide coordinating ships and head up surveillance efforts, leaving coalition members to patrol and provide escort to commercial ships flying their flag.

While it is not currently known what the purpose of the Saudi Navy will be in this regards, it can be projected that the Saudi Navy will receive more focus from the government. In 2018, Saudi Arabia embarked on a massive project called the Saudi Naval Expansion Programme (SNEP II), costing around $20 bn with a particular focus on modernising the outdated East Naval fleet.

This exercise has many similarities to the Saudi Navy’s extensive expansion programme that took place from the 1970s to the late 1990s known as SNEP I. The primary objective of SNEP I was to match the growing strength of the Iranian Navy. Before initiation of the project, the Royal Saudi Navy did not possess an offensive naval capability as the composition of its fleet consisted of a dozen surface ships and outdated patrol boats.

It is pertinent to mention that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was promoted to the position of Commander of the Royal Saudi Navy in 2017 with the intent to propel green water capabilities, secure regional assets and deter threats. It can be inferred that Saudi perceives that its economic interests such as energy exports can be attacked not only on Saudi soil but also in the neighboring waters thus causing it to find ways to safeguard the nearby waterways.

This has helped US ambitions in the regions. Its objective of a long term presence through the International Maritime Security Construct was hampered due to the absence of a viable local power in tis ranks. With the addition of both of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the US has strengthened its ties with the Sheikdoms in the Gulf which also helps its agenda against Iran. It also helps to arrest the decline of US military presence in the region specifically after the withdrawal of forces from Iraq.

The latest move can cause a reaction from other global powers like Russia and China. The Iran Press news agency has reported that China, Russia and Iran are planning a joint naval drill in the Sea of Oman and northern Indian Ocean “soon”. Russia has been highly critical of the IMSC about whose purpose it stated was “absolutely unclear”. In 2019, Russia submitted to the United Nations a proposal that calls for collective security in the Persian Gulf at a time of rising tensions in the strategic region.

China has also become active in the recent months after the rise in tensions about a maritime presence in the Gulf. On Aug. 6, Chinese Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates Ni Jian said China was considering having its navy escort its commercial ships in the region, and that Beijing was also looking at the U.S. proposal for Gulf escorts.However, observers are wary of China joining the IMSC due to the ongoing trade war and also deep mistrust between the two countries. It already has a military presence in the Gulf of Aden through its base in Djibouti as well as escorting commercial maritime traffic in the area.

The new development in the region on one hand strengthens the military role of the US in the region but also opens the door of a new confrontation with rival powers by accelerating the formation of a parallel security alliance between Iran, Russia and China. This will lead to an increased militarization of the Persian Gulf and also raise the risk of war on a global scale.