The absence of participating countries was notable when Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III announced that the United States organize a new naval task force to confront the threat of Yemen’s Houthi militias attacking global shipping in the Red Sea.
No regional power has agreed to allow its navy to participate. The only Middle Eastern country participating is the small island state of Bahrain, and regional capitals have been otherwise silent.
Many Arab countries rely heavily on trade across the Red Sea, from the Suez Canal in the north to the Bab-al-Mandeb Strait that Yemen adjoins in the south. But with repeated and loud announcements from the United States of support for the Israeli war in the Gaza Strip, angering Arab populations, no country in the region seems willing to partner with the United States in a military enterprise.
“This is a really uncomfortable and delicate moment for most Arab states,” said Dr Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, the international affairs think tank in London. “They in no way want to be seen as endorsing Israel’s destruction of Gaza and its brutal tactics. »
Iran – a key supporter of the Houthis – has been the most vocal critic of US efforts, while also trying to respect the limit. He described any membership in the coalition as “direct participation in the crimes of the Zionist entity,” according to a statement by Ali Shamkani, political advisor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, relayed by official media.
At the same time, Iran has also sought to downplay any direct role in missile, rocket or drone attacks carried out against Israel or against shipping in the Red Sea, saying the Houthis were acting on their own. The goal was to avoid drawing direct air from the United States, Dr. Vakil said.
Even states whose trade and revenues rely heavily on secure shipping lanes remain behind as at least five major shipping companies have said they will avoid the Red Sea.
Egypt earned a record $9.4 billion from ships transiting the Suez Canal to or from the Red Sea last year, representing about 2% of its gross domestic product and constitutes an important source of foreign exchange. About 12 percent of global trade passes through the canal between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, including container ships. Egypt’s only official reaction was a statement Monday from the Suez Canal Authority saying it was monitoring the situation.
The port of Jeddah, which handles most of Saudi commercial traffic, is located on the Red Sea, and the entire coastline constitutes a major axis of economic diversification efforts pushed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
But Saudi Arabia’s relations with the Houthis were already complicated before the Gaza war. After years of losing war against militias, the Saudis are eager to try to reach a peace deal and not engage in further confrontation.
After U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken spoke with his Saudi counterpart, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, on Monday, each side’s summary of the call was noticeably different. The US version noted that Blinken called for maritime security cooperation to deal with the Houthis, the Saudi version said the main point of the call was the evolving situation in Gaza.
Oman, which serves as an intermediary between the international community and the Houthis, has refused to pressure the Houthis to stop their attacks on ships, saying a ceasefire in Gaza must come first, according to a person who was briefed by Omani officials and spoke on the subject. on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the negotiations.
Many countries fear that the war in Gaza could inflame the region. But other countries could support the working group, which so far also includes Britain, Canada, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Seychelles and Spain. Bahrain, which hosts a US naval base and recently concluded a security agreement with the United States, and the United Arab Emirates, also involved in the long war against the Houthis in Yemen.
In response to the announcement, a group of Bahrainis called for demonstrations on Friday to protest their government’s participation in the task force, and the country’s main opposition group, al-Wefaq, denounced the government’s decision, saying that she had returned Bahrain “a direct partner in the shedding of Palestinian blood.”
Privately, many Arab states are content to see the United States enter into a confrontation with one of Iran’s mandated forces, Dr. Vakil said.
In recent months, Iran has sought to flex its muscles, emphasizing that the Houthis form one of the points of its so-called “Axis of Resistance”, its term grouping together various allies of the Arab world, such as Hezbollah and Hamas . Last week, before the announcement of the creation of a naval task force, Iranian Defense Minister Mohammed Reza Ashtiani warned against the move, saying: “The Red Sea is our region and we control it , and no one can maneuver there. »
The disruption of Western trade routes goes hand in hand with Iranian efforts to confront the United States and its allies, and anything that raises oil prices only increases its revenues. Despite this, he sought to avoid an escalation of the conflict in Gaza into a regional war.
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Kani recently tried to distance Tehran from its Houthi allies, telling a news conference in Tokyo on Monday that the group was acting independently in its operations against the ships.
“The Yemeni government has announced that it will prevent any aid to Israel as long as the Zionists continue their crimes against the people of Gaza,” Mr. Bagheri Kani said. quoted as stated by the official news agency of the Islamic Republic. I called the Houthis “an independent actor on the international scene.”
Viviane Néréim And Nada Rashwan reports contributed.