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Bahrain: The only Arabs to join US Red Sea task force

Bahrain: The only Arabs to join US Red Sea task force

The Houthis are attacking in their backyard, but other Gulf state nations have their reasons for holding back

Analysis | Middle East

Last month, the U.S. announced Operation Prosperity Guardian, a naval coalition aimed at deterring Houthi attacks in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. Bahrain was the only Arab nation to join. The reasons why — and why other U.S. allies and partners in the region did not — should be of interest to us.

Many countries have valid concerns about the Gaza war’s further regionalization. The Houthis say they are targeting commercial vessels that are Israeli owned or heading for Israeli ports with missile and drone strikes, and have already hijacked a ship. They vow to continue these attacks until Israel agrees to a ceasefire.

The U.S. has been thwarting most of these attacks with their naval-based missile defenses.

Much is at stake economically with the Red Sea’s security crisis. Separating the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa is the Bab el-Mandeb strait, which links the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea. Roughly 30 percent of all global containers transit the Bab el-Mandeb and the Suez Canal, as does about 12 percent of all world trade.

But since the Houthi attacks in the southern Red Sea and Gulf of Aden began in October, major shipping carriers have stopped transiting the Suez Canal and have re-routed their vessels around Africa, threatening consumer prices hikes. This disruption to Red Sea trade can seriously harm economies across Europe, which were already contracting before this crisis.

Operation Prosperity Guardian

That Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which were the two main states in the Arab military coalition that began fighting the Houthis in 2015, did not join Operation Prosperity Guardian is quite significant. Also notable is the fact that Egypt, a major Arab country with a 930-mile Red Sea coast, refused to join, too.

Most Arab states avoided formally joining Operation Prosperity Guardian for several reasons. First, Arab societies are so enraged about Israel’s indiscriminate bombing, forced starvation, and displacement of millions of Palestinians in Gaza, that the governments in the region do not want to be seen as complicit by openly siding with Washington, which is clearly funding and arming Israel’s operations.

Second, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member-states — particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE — want to avoid actions that could trigger a resumption of Houthi attacks on their energy and civilian infrastructure or further destabilize the Red Sea, where many of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 projects exist. Third, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi fear that joining this security initiative could upset their détentes with Tehran, which sponsors the Houthi movement.

Bahrain's Unique Position

Bahrain, which the George W. Bush Administration recognized as a Major non-NATO Ally in 2002, made a different calculation. An important factor to keep in mind is that Bahrain hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. Also, Bahrain and the U.S. signed the Comprehensive Security Integration and Prosperity Agreement, a strategic security and economic pact, in September.

“Bahrain has long perceived an existential threat from Iran that shapes its security stance, so by providing a home for U.S. assets, Bahrain gains protection and relevance which is another layer beyond the security protection it receives from Saudi Arabia and the UAE,” said Steven Wright, an associate professor of international relations at Hamad Bin Khalifa University, in an interview with Responsible Statecraft.

“Other GCC members seem to have more complex calculations: for Saudi Arabia and UAE, existing efforts to climb down tensions with Iran explains their position,” he added.

Joseph A. Kéchichian, a senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, noted that Bahrain, which has a single guided missile frigate and two smaller guided missile ships called corvettes, has not sent these assets to join the task force, at least not yet.

“Manama’s contribution may be similar to Amsterdam’s and Canberra’s, as The Netherlands and Australia announced that they would send military personnel, but no vessels,” he said. “Yet, because Bahrain is the headquarters of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, as well as the home of the Combined Maritime Forces that coordinate coalition operations in the area, it makes sense for the kingdom to join if only to provide and receive information of actual maneuvers.”

He suggested that other Gulf Cooperation Coalition (GCC) members would be sharing information vis-a-vis the new task force, although it is unclear how that would occur. “As far as it is known, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which could have deployed naval vessels, opted to stay out of Operation Prosperity Guardian because they disagreed with its narrow objectives,” added Kéchichian.

Post-Oct. 7 Blowback in Bahrain

Having normalized with Israel in 2020, Bahrain has been in an awkward position since October 7. When it comes to relations with Israel, there is a major divide between the Bahraini leadership and its citizenry. This divide has deepened amid the Gaza war.

As Gaza’s Palestinian death toll steadily rises, Bahraini authorities must contend with increased risks of blowback at home given how unpopular the Abraham Accords are with Bahraini citizens across the country’s political spectrum and among diverse civil society groups. As Human Rights Watch recently documented, Bahraini authorities have used oppressive tactics to repress Palestine solidarity protestors across the country.

“The Al Khalifa monarchy has proven adept historically at subduing dissent through a variety of tools. It seems clear that Bahrain has calculated that involvement in the Abraham Accords serves its overall economic, foreign policy and security interests despite criticism,” offered Wright.

“The bottom line is that the economic perks and U.S. backing is outweighing public opinion objections from its domestic political groups,” said Wright.

Courtney Freer, a fellow at Emory University, noted to RS that Bahrain’s elected lower house of parliament issued a statement in November claiming that the country's ambassador had left Israel and that economic ties between the two states had been severed.

“It is worth noting that this language is coming from a primarily loyalist parliament, which suggests that such feelings of animosity towards Israel are not just associated with opposition parties, which, in turn, may make it more difficult to ignore,” said Freer. “Notably, citizens have become involved in pro-Palestinian protests, and so there is anger, but it is uncertain whether this anger will be translated into political risk for the regime.”

Bahrain’s diplomatic relations with Israel and military alliance with the U.S. may subject the archipelago kingdom to blowback from Iran-aligned actors in the region. But Bahrain abrogating the Abraham Accords or fundamentally changing its relationship with Washington is highly unlikely. Ultimately, Bahrain’s leadership seems to assess that such risks of blowback are worth the benefits of normalized relations with Israel and American support.

“The Al Khalifa monarchy has proven adept at managing domestic dissent through various means, so the risks from Iran within this context will be viewed as manageable. Any public concerns over cooperation with Israel/U.S. is unlikely to seriously challenge its stability and at most is likely to be limited in scale,” Wright said.

“Basically, Bahrain is seeking to be relevant to the U.S. by backing its counter-Houthi maritime initiative,” he added. “This allows it to further cement its relationship with both the U.S. and also Israel, given that this is part of an approach to counter Houthi and Iranian geopolitical reach.”

Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, U.S. 5th Fleet and Combined Maritime Forces, welcomed His Majesty the King to command headquarters in April 2023. (US Centcom)

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