There was a notable absence among participating countries when Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III announced that the United States was organizing a new naval task force to confront the threat of Yemen’s Houthi militia marauding global shipping in the Red Sea.
No regional power accepted that its navy participate. The only Middle Eastern country participating is the small island state of Bahrain, and otherwise there was a noticeable silence from regional capitals.
Many Arab countries rely heavily on trade that flows through the Red Sea, from the Suez Canal in the north to the Bab-al-Mandeb Strait, which Yemen borders in the south. But with repeated and vocal announcements of US support for Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip fueling anger among Arab populations, no country in the region appears willing to partner with the United States in a military venture.
“It’s a really awkward and uncomfortable time for most Arab states,” said Dr. Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, the London-based international affairs think tank. “They do not want to be seen as endorsing in any way Israel’s destruction of Gaza and its brutal tactics.”
Iran – a key supporter of the Houthis – has been the most outspoken critic of the US effort, while attempting to walk a fine line. He criticized any addition to 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, released by official media.
At the same time, Iran also sought to downplay any direct role in missile, rocket or drone attacks carried out against Israel or shipping in the Red Sea, claiming that the Houthis were acting on their own. The goal was to avoid attracting the direct ire of the United States, Dr. Vakil said.
Even those states whose trade and revenues depend heavily on keeping shipping routes safe are being left behind, while 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, accounting for about 2 percent of its gross domestic product and serving as a major source of foreign exchange. About 12 percent of global trade passes through the canal between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, especially container ships. Egypt’s only official reaction has been a statement on Monday from the Suez Canal Authority saying it was monitoring the situation.
The port of Jeddah, which handles most of Saudi Arabia’s commercial traffic, is located on the Red Sea, and the entire coast is a major focus of economic diversification efforts pushed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
But Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the Houthis was complicated even before the war in Gaza. After years of effectively losing the war with the militia, the Saudis are eager to try to conclude a peace deal and not enter a new confrontation.
After US 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 urged cooperation on maritime security to confront the Houthis, the Saudi version said the main point of the call was the events in Gaza.
Oman, which mediates between the international community and the Houthis, has refused to pressure the Houthis to stop their attacks on shipping, saying a ceasefire in Gaza must come first, according to a person who was briefed by Omani officials and spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the negotiations.
Many nations worry that the Gaza war could still inflame the region. But there are more countries that 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, which has also been involved in the long war against the Houthis in Yemen.
In response to the announcement, a group of Bahrainis called a demonstration on Friday to protest their government’s participation in the working group, and the country’s main opposition group, al-Wefaq, denounced the government’s decision, saying it made that Bahrain “a direct partner in the shedding of Palestinian blood.”
Privately, many Arab states are happy to see the United States enter into a confrontation with one of Iran’s proxy forces, Dr. Vakil said.
In recent months, Iran has tried to flex its muscles, pointing out that the Houthis formed one point of its so-called “Axis of Resistance,” a term that groups several allies in the Arab world, such as Hezbollah and Hamas. Last week, before the naval task force was announced, Iran’s Defense Minister Mohammed Reza Ashtiani warned against it, saying: “The Red Sea is our region and we control it, and no one can maneuver in it.”
The disruption of Western trade routes dovetails with Iranian efforts to confront the United States and its allies, and anything that drives up oil prices only increases its revenues. Still, he has tried to prevent the Gaza conflict from turning into a regional war.
An Iranian deputy foreign minister, Ali Bagheri Kani, recently attempted to distance Tehran from its Houthi allies, saying at a news conference in Tokyo on Monday that the group was acting independently when it came to its operations against ships.
“The Yemeni government has announced that it will prevent assistance to Israel as long as the Zionists continue their crimes against the people of Gaza,” Bagheri Kani said. aforementioned as the official news agency of the Islamic Republic said. He called the Houthis “an independent actor on the international stage.”
Vivian Nereim and Nada Rashwan contributed with reports.