Is a Middle Eastern naval war looming?

Current disputes could put the Egyptian Navy in direct confrontation with Turkey’s.
Sunday 08/12/2019
Tensions rising. Egyptian Navy officers stand aboard the deck of S42, a German-made submarine, during a handover ceremony in the German Baltic city of Kiel.  (AFP)
Tensions rising. Egyptian Navy officers stand aboard the deck of S42, a German-made submarine, during a handover ceremony in the German Baltic city of Kiel. (AFP)

CAIRO - Iranian Navy Commander Hossein Khanzadi recently revealed that five sophisticated weapons and warfare systems had been added to Iran’s arsenal, cementing the country’s position as one of the region’s premier naval powers.

A report by Global Firepower, which ranks countries’ military capabilities, stated that Iran’s navy was the fourth-strongest in the world and the strongest in the region.

One of its biggest competitors in the region is the Egyptian Navy, ranked sixth globally and second regionally. While Iran outnumbers Egypt in terms of vessels, submarines and patrol vessels, some of Egypt’s naval equipment is believed to be more advanced.

The Military Factory website, which specialises in tracking global arms deals, said most Iranian Navy submarines and patrol vessels are either homemade models IRIN, Fateh and Ghadir or Soviet Kilo class.

Three of Egypt’s four submarines are German Type 209 class, which is considered one of the most efficient in the world. Twenty-five of Egypt’s patrol vessels are US Bertram-class or Swift and the Turkish MRTP-20.

The two regional adversaries’ efforts to strengthen their navies raised concerns about the prospect of conflict but analysts said those naval improvements deter conflict between Tehran and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

“War isn’t the only reason behind (Egypt’s) arming,” said retired Egyptian Colonel Mohamed Saad. “Maintaining the military balance prevents Iran from waging war on the Gulf states whenever Iran takes into account Egypt’s role in protecting them.”

Drone and missile attacks on oil tankers passing through the Arabian Gulf and in Saudi and UAE waters this year increased tensions in the region. The Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen claimed responsibility for most of the attacks on tankers near the Strait of Hormuz but the United States and EU members said there was “strong evidence” Iran was behind them.

Egypt relies on the strategic waterways in the Gulf to secure important imports and exports. Cairo brings in some 52% of its products from Gulf countries, often at discounted rates with easy payment terms.

Egypt imports 700,000 tonnes of petroleum products from Saudi Aramco per month, 125,000 tonnes of petroleum products per month from Kuwait and 289,000 tonnes of Kuwaiti crude oil per month.

TradeMap, an international trade tracking website, said the Gulf countries account for some 13.5% of Egypt’s exports, bringing in $3.9 billion in 2018.

The Strait of Hormuz is the only route through which Kuwaiti, Qatari, Bahraini and Emirati tankers can reach the Indian Ocean, the Bab el Mandeb Strait, the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, which serves as Egypt’s most strategic economic resource.

Egypt, mindful of how critical the waterways are, promised to respond with force if Gulf security was imperilled.

“If Gulf security is directly threatened by anyone, the Egyptian people, even before their leadership, will not accept that and will mobilise forces to protect their brethren,” said Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in November 2018.

Egypt’s navy is not only important to countering Iran’s threat. Mohamed Bahaa El-Din, a political science professor at Suez University, said Egypt’s strong navy plays an important role in deterring “hostile Turkish acts into the Mediterranean.”

Ankara, which is at odds with Egypt and Arab Gulf countries because of its support of Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, has tried to increase its leverage in the Mediterranean region.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed a memorandum of understanding November 28 with Fayez al-Sarraj, head of Libya’s Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), to demarcate maritime borders between the two countries without coordination with Egypt or Greece. Sarraj also signed a memorandum of understanding on military cooperation that could establish a Turkish military base in Libya.

However, the 2015 Skhirat Agreement, which determines the prerogatives of the GNA, does not give Sarraj authority to sign off on such agreements without other members of the government.

Turkey, ignoring border demarcation agreements between Egypt and Cyprus, began gas exploration efforts in Cypriot waters in July. Ankara claims that several Cypriot concession areas are within its territorial waters.

Turkey also claims that parts of the Cypriot concession blocks are in territorial waters of Turkish Cyprus, only recognised by the Turkish government.

Some of the areas are subject to a partnership agreement on hydrocarbon reservoirs extending across and near the Egyptian-Cypriot borders, concluded between Cairo and Nicosia in 2014, and others could be depending on the expansion of oil and gas reservoir discoveries there.

This dispute could put the Egyptian Navy in direct confrontation with Turkey’s naval forces.