The challenges of maritime security in the Arabian peninsula
The oil-rich Gulf Arab states face important challenges ranging from terrorism to food security, but the issue of maritime security is an over-arching concern as all of them depend on the sea for the export and import of most of their vital strategic products.
There are three major maritime chokepoints along the lengthy coastline of the Arabian peninsula. The Strait of Hormuz, between Iran and Oman, is the world’s most important waterway for oil and gas through which is carried some 17 million barrels of crude a day, about 30 percent of all seaborne-traded oil. The other chokepoints are the Bab el Mandeb, which commands the entrance to the Red Sea from the Gulf of Oman, and the Gulf of Suez at the southern end of the Suez Canal.
The maritime security challenge faced by the Arabian peninsula GCC is a product of the instability of the region. Yemen and the six GCC countries of the peninsula are flanked by Iraq to the north, Iran and Pakistan to the east, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea and Djibouti to the west and Somalia to the south.
The potential threat is compounded by the emergence of non-traditional and non-state actors operating at sea.
The GCC must be simultaneously able to defend and safeguard its maritime security interests against Iranian forces on one side, an unstable Yemen from which Houthi-led insurgents may develop a capability to threaten the Bab el Mandeb, and an increasingly active Islamic State (ISIS) presence in the Sinai, which overlooks the Suez Canal.
Forces such as Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) are capable of carrying out sabotage, threatening shipping and deploying mines, which would have a disproportionate cost to GCC countries. The threat of short-range rockets fired from the coast at chokepoints or at sea from small craft and dhows dampens freedom of navigation at sea and could halt maritime traffic altogether.
While the activities of Somali pirates have diminished in recent years, the threat remains. Pirates must be denied operating spaces alongside any copycat criminal networks that could emerge to threaten vital sea lanes for GCC states.
Narcotics and contraband smugglers, human traffickers and illegal waste dumpers represent the same category of criminal maritime networks more broadly that pose a serious and growing challenge to GCC security interests. Put together, the scale and diversity of maritime threats represent a highly complex, multidimensional challenge for the GCC that will grow with time. Additionally, GCC states must contend with the residual threat from Israel. German-supplied Israeli submarines operating with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles regularly conduct exercises in the Red Sea, for example.
Tackling the maritime security challenges will require deeper cooperation at the GCC level first and foremost as well as with key regional partners such as Egypt and Jordan, enhanced partnerships with international allies such as the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Australia and Pakistan.
The GCC is busy on both fronts but it will be critical to translate a strategic vision into a robust, operational set of capabilities as quickly as possible. Setting and declaring clear benchmarks among GCC navies could prove useful in ensuring development is not subjected to fluctuations in priorities.
GCC naval forces must also fast-track their expanding efforts at technical capacity building to boost round-the-clock patrolling and reconnaissance capabilities of regional waters to support maritime domain situational awareness, rapid response and interdiction and a robust strategic capability to deter, deny, disrupt, degrade and destroy any combination of conventional and asymmetric threats.
Technical capacity building will enable the GCC to redefine the regional maritime security architecture as the dominant regional maritime and naval force. In the overall analysis, that would be positive for international security.