Saudi Arabia, UAE skip Red Sea pact

SAUDI Arabia's name was conspicuously — perhaps surprisingly — absent from a list of countries the United States announced as part of its new naval coalition protecting Red Sea shipping from Yemen's Houthi group.

Although it has a US-equipped military, has been waging war on the Houthis for nearly nine years and relies on Red Sea ports for 36 per cent of imports, Saudi Arabia along with Gulf ally the United Arab Emirates has proclaimed no interest in the venture.

The main reason appears to be a concern that participating would detract from a long-term strategic goal: extricating itself from a messy war in Yemen and a destructive feud with the Houthis' principal backer, Iran.

The Houthis, who control much of Yemen, have been striking at ships in the Red Sea for weeks in response to Israel's war with Hamas.

Their campaign has hit Israel's Western allies by complicating global trade. On Wednesday, their leader threatened to expand this campaign to US naval vessels.

The Saudi and Emirati governments want to avoid being seen as participants in a campaign that could upset their long-term regional strategy and turn Arab anger over Gaza against them.

Two sources in the Gulf familiar with the matter said their absence was because they wanted to avoid escalating tensions with Iran or jeopardising the peace push in Yemen by joining any naval action.

"Another war would mean moving from the political process into another military one that would really mess up the geopolitical map of the Middle East right now," said Eyad Alrefai of King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah.

Spurred partly by worry about long-term US commitment, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have for years tried to reorient their regional policy, seeking new partners, taking a fresh look at ties with Israel and settling the rivalry with Iran.

The biggest steps in that process so far were the Chinese-mediated detente agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran in February and the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and the UAE in 2020.

But the Saudis also want to end their nearly nine-year war in Yemen, which has become a draining stalemate that has damaged their reputation and brought insecurity through Houthi drone attacks on airports and energy plants.

Peace in Yemen is important for the UAE too, even though it largely pulled out its forces in 2020.

Saudi Arabia hoped resolving these regional disputes would allow it to focus on an ambitious agenda of building futuristic new cities and taking a bigger seat in global affairs, including hosting the 2034 World Cup.

Israel's war in Gaza has chilled Emirati ties with Israel, derailed Saudi-Israeli normalisation talks and made any embrace of US policy an uncomfortable prospect for Arab leaders.

Meanwhile, many Arabs have spoken warmly of Houthi drone attacks aimed at Israel and the group's strikes against Red Sea shipping as a rare example of Arab action in support of Palestinians.

Still, Saudi reluctance to torpedo a regional strategy based around detente with Iran and peace with the Houthis will be balanced by its need for security in the Red Sea overall and its continued reliance on a US security umbrella.

The US "is probably not delighted" that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have not publicly signed up for the task force said former US ambassador to Yemen, Gerald Feierstein.

But, Feierstein added, the White House "would have to be pretty blind, deaf and dumb not to understand what was going on and be surprised by the response on the Saudi side or the Emirati side".

Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE were already members of a US-led Combined Maritime Force operating in the Gulf and Red Sea, though the UAE said in May that it was leaving that grouping.

Asked directly about the two Gulf states' apparent lack of participation, John Kirby, the White House national security spokesperson, said, "I will let every nation who is a member, whether they want to acknowledge it or not, speak for themselves".

Speaking later, without direct reference to either country, he said: "There are some nations that have agreed to participate and to be a part of this but ... they get to decide how public they want that to be."

The writers are from Reuters

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the New Straits Times

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