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Enhancing Cooperation on Maritime Security in the Gulf

Writer: Amnah Mosly*

The attack on the oil tanker Pacific Zircon off the coast of Oman in November 2022 once again highlighted the precarious situation of maritime security around the waters of the Arabian Peninsula. The Gulf continues to be threatened by piracy and attacks on the region’s waters between the Suez Canal and the Strait of Hormuz. These attacks have direct consequences on the global economy as well as maritime safety and transportation, given the Gulf’s pivotal role in maritime trade, particularly in the field of energy supplies. Thus, providing extended maritime security to the Gulf region is in the interests of the broader global community. The United States (US) and the European Union (EU) already play important maritime roles in the Gulf. At the same time, additional support is required as the Gulf waters continue to face threats and attacks. This could include more significant roles by multilateral organizations such as the United Nations (UN) and NATO or even auxiliary roles by powers such as China and India. 

This paper argues that maritime security can be a means to both underline core US-GCC defense relations as well as enhance more comprehensive EU-GCC relations as both the US and the EU remain the best options for the Gulf region. First, this paper will provide a contextual analysis of current events and scenarios that threaten the maritime security environment, including attacks from the Houthis, Israel, and Iran. Next, the paper will outline current investments in maritime security in the Gulf, both regionally and internationally. The paper will conclude by looking more closely at how the US and the EU, in cooperation with their GCC partners, can make the maritime security platform a central endeavor of the near-term defense and security relationship. This also includes the merging of currently separate maritime missions and the possibility of trilateral cooperation.

Contextual Analysis

The Gulf region is of strategic importance when it comes to seaborne traded petroleum. In 2018, around 40% of global petroleum liquids trade passed through the Strait of Hormuz (21%), the Bab el-Mandeb Strait (9%), and the Suez Canal (9%) (US Energy Information Administration (EIA), 2019). Moreover, a large share of this goes to EU member states (The Economist, 2021). First, the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow 21-mile-wide channel separating Iran from the Arabian Peninsula, is considered to be the most significant oil chokepoint in the world due to the significant amounts of energy supplies that pass through the strait (US Energy Information Administration, 2019). According to Khalifa Almarar, the Minister of State of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation in UAE, who delivered a speech at the 18th IISS Manama Dialogue, the Strait of Hormuz “is the most important strategic strait in the world, through which about 25% of the world’s oil consumption passes, and about a third of the world’s consumption of LNG (liquefied natural gas).”

Table 1: Strait of Hormuz Global Oil Shipments, 2014-2018 (Million Barrels Per Day)







Total Oil Flows Through the Strait of Hormuz






Global Maritime Oil Trade






Global Total Petroleum and Other Liquids Consumption






LNG Flows Through the Strait of Hormuz (Tcf Per Year)






Source: US Energy Information Administration, 2019.


Second, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, which connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea, is a sea route chokepoint between the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. In 2018, the EIA estimated that 6.2 million barrels per day (b/d) of crude oil, condensate, and refined petroleum products flowed through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait toward Europe, the United States, and Asia, an increase from 5.1 million b/d in 2014. In total, approximately 9% of seaborne trade in petroleum passed through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait in 2017, with a total of 2.6 million b/d flowing to Asian markets like Singapore, China, and India, and 3.6 million b/d going toward Europe (US Energy Information Administration, 2019). The Bab el-Mandeb Strait is also crucial for international commerce, as over 50 million tons of agricultural products pass through the strait annually (Bailey and Wellesley, 2017).

Third, the Suez Canal connects the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, making it a strategic route for shipments to Europe and North America. The Suez Canal transports around 12% of world trade, or 30% of all container traffic, and more than $1 trillion worth of commodities annually (Topham, 2021). Specifically, 85% of trade moving northward through the Suez Canal consists of oil exports from the Middle East.


Out of the different scenarios that threaten the maritime security environment, the attacks by the Houthis and Iran are considered the most urgent security risks. The Houthis have launched numerous maritime attacks on the Red Sea since 2015, in addition to numerous drone and missile strikes on Saudi Arabia. From 2021 into 2022, the Houthis escalated their warfare attacks against civilian targets on the Red Sea, especially in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Although Saudi Arabia was able to intercept the majority of these attacks, the Houthis have repeatedly attacked strategic facilities, including ports, oil installations, and airports in the Kingdom.


One of the most significant attacks was the strike on Saudi oil facilities in Khurais and Abqaiq in September 2019. The attack is widely considered to be the “single largest daily oil supply disruption in history” (Verrastro and Stanley, 2019). The total supply loss from this attack was around 5.7 million barrels per day (b/d) of oil output, which is more than half of Saudi Arabia’s recent output and about 6% of global supply, as well as 2 billion cubic feet per day of associated gas (Pangea-Risk, 2021). Another serious incident was the attack on a major oil pipeline in Saudi Arabia with armed drones in May 2019, for which Houthi rebels, allied with Tehran, claimed responsibility. Two pumping stations were hit at the Saudi East-West pipeline (Petroline) carrying oil from the Eastern Province to the Red Sea port of Yanbu. As a result, there were international repercussions as oil prices soared after this attack, and Brent crude oil contracts rose 1.7% to $71.39 per barrel. Additionally, Khalifa Almarar, the Minister of State of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation in the UAE, explained that increased acts of maritime piracy threatened the maritime security in the region and consequently disrupted international trade, particularly following the attack on the destroyer USS Cole in the Gulf of Aden in October 2000, and the four oil tankers off the coast of the UAE during May 2019, June 2019, July 2021, and August 2021.

Israel and Iran’s “regional shadow war” also poses another security threat to the region. Since 2019, Israel has attacked Iranian ships through the eastern Mediterranean and the Red Sea, with Iran responding with its own maritime attacks on Israeli ships. In November 2019, Iran disclosed that three of its oil tankers (Happiness I, Helm, and Sabiti) were allegedly attacked by Israel. On February 25, 2021, the Israeli-owned Helios Ray was damaged by two limpet mines in the Gulf of Oman, for which the Israeli government blamed Iran (Nadimi, 2021). The apparent Israeli response came on March 10, 2021, when the Iranian container ship Shahr e Kord was hit by an explosive object 50 miles off the Israeli coast (Kingsley et al., 2021). The tit-for-tat nature continued on March 25, 2021, when Lori, an Israeli-owned container ship carrying Israeli arms to India, was hit by an Iranian missile in the Arabian Sea (Nadimi, 2021). Saviz, an Iranian cargo ship was then attacked on April 6, 2021, followed by the attack on the Israeli-owned Hyperion Ray on April 13, 2021, off the Emirati coast. The attack on the oil tanker Pacific Zircon off the coast of Oman in November 2022 is the latest known incident. These Iranian and Israeli attacks in the Red Sea can be seen as an example of the internationalization of the issue of maritime security in the Gulf. What is clear is that there is a growing need for additional efforts to protect the region. Consequently, the increase in attacks led to several responses, both regionally and internationally.

International Responses to the Growing Maritime Threat


The United States remains the preeminent force in having the capability to respond to the rising threat to maritime security. The US created the International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC) to protect commercial ships in the Gulf, with the support of Bahrain, the base of the US Fifth Fleet, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Australia, and the UK. This military coalition aims at promoting maritime security and free navigation for commercial vessels crossing international waters in the region. The IMSC also inaugurated its operative arm, the Coalition Task Force (CTF) SENTINEL, and opened its command center in Manama, Bahrain, where the US Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) is also headquartered. Original IMSC member-states include Albania, Bahrain, Estonia, Lithuania, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Seychelles and Romania became members in October and March 2022, respectively, while Latvia joined in December 2022. 

The creation of the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF), a multinational naval mission, is the latest US military response to the attacks on regional waters. On April 17, 2022, the CTF-153, one of four task forces operated by the CMF, was deployed in the Red Sea, the Bab el-Mandeb, and the Gulf of Aden “to focus on international maritime security and capacity building efforts” (Combined Maritime Forces, 2022). Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, the Fifth Fleet Commander, explained that the task force aims to “ensure a force presence and deterrent posture in the Red Sea, Bab al-Mandab and Gulf of Aden,” stating that “these are strategically important waters that warrant our attention” as they are a significant passageway for global trade, particularly oil supplies (Cornwell, 2022). Moreover, Vice Adm. Cooper explained that the CTF-153 aims to impact the Houthis’ ability to obtain weaponry needed for attacks on these waters, alongside human trafficking, drug trafficking, smuggling, and piracy. 

Consequently, the CTF-153 is considered mutually beneficial to the US and the GCC states. On the one hand, the protection and stability of the region means protection and stability of global trade, particularly oil supplies. On the other hand, the recent formation of this new naval task force not only serves to improve maritime security in the Red Sea, the Bab el-Mandeb, and the Gulf of Aden, but also serves as a reassurance to the region who felt abandoned in recent years following the US withdrawal in Afghanistan. In addition to maritime security and consistent energy supply, a collective security framework will benefit both sides in terms of containing Iranian interventionist policies. 

In addition to IMSC, the European-led Maritime Awareness in the Strait of Hormuz (EMASOH) and its military arm, Operation AGÉNOR, operate out of a French naval base in Abu Dhabi and similarly aims to ensure freedom of navigation. EMASOH, which is a French initiative, was launched in January 2020 to “promote regional de-escalation in the Gulf and ensure freedom of navigation in the seas around the Strait of Hormuz” in the wake of Houthi attacks on commercial ships and tankers in the UAE as well the attacks on the Khurais and Abqaiq oil facilities in Saudi Arabia (Bianco and Moretti, 2022). The maritime surveillance mission includes Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, and Portugal. Its military component, Operation AGÉNOR, includes the eight EU countries as well as Norway. Ambassador Jakob Tange, the Senior Civilian Representative in EMASOH, explained that the initiative aims to ensure freedom of navigation by maintaining an autonomous situation appreciation, contributing to a stabilized environment, and promoting the European perspective and presence at sea.