The ‘Gulf’ widens as GCC states differ on US strategy against Yemen

Khalil Harb, The Cradle, December 27, 2023 —

The US-led Red Sea coalition’s shaky start reveals the Persian Gulf’s vastly divergent views on the maritime force’s utility, with differences set to intensify as aggressions kick off.

More than a week has passed since US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin unveiled the multi-national naval task force Operation Prosperity Guardian to counter operations by Yemen’s Ansarallah-aligned armed forces in the Red Sea to blockade Israel-bound vessels in response to the war on Gaza.

However, the mission’s nature, objectives, and members – including Bahrain – have become increasingly ambiguous. While Manama announced its participation, the absence of fellow Gulf Coorporation Council (GCC) members Saudi Arabia and the UAE raises intriguing questions.

Even Bahrain’s motives are hazy, given that it lacks any naval fleet of military significance, and relies on small vessels and combat forces for its own maritime defenses. As such, skepticism surrounds the extent of the tiny Persian Gulf emirate’s actual military contribution.

Bahrain has Israel’s back 

One Bahraini opposition leader, speaking to The Cradle on the condition of anonymity, describes Manama’s participation as “the necessity of what is not necessary.” The leader points to Bahrain’s complex loyalties to the US, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel, in addition to its GCC membership as likely reasons for its odd decision.

The Bahraini government’s stance, especially amid Israel’s genocidal onslaught in Gaza, has shocked many within the country, in spite of its unpopular decision in 2020 to normalize relations with the occupation state. Under pressure, however, Manama did recall its ambassador from Tel Aviv and temporarily suspended economic relations on 2 November – though the Israelis claim they had not been officially informed of the withdrawal of the Bahraini ambassador and say relations between the two countries are stable. 

A well-informed Bahraini source informs The Cradle that this detached position aligns with the government’s policy since signing the UAE-led and Washington-brokered Abraham Accords. The government, he says, has sought to adopt a neutral stance on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, not recognizing it as a struggle against occupation and overlooking its significance to Arab national security.

“This policy, first, was expressed by the Bahraini Crown Prince and Prime Minister Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, when he described what Hamas has done as a terrorist act, and at the same time condemned the Israeli massacres in an attempt to maintain a neutral center.”

The source further points out that Bahrain’s alignment with Abu Dhabi’s policy reflects a shift towards “the Emirati orbit over the Saudi one.” This is evident in its delayed reconciliation with Qatar, initiated by Riyadh but met with hesitation in Manama. Likewise, the UAE had a slower approach to restoring relations with Doha than the Saudis.

Submissive stance to US influence

Bahrain has a historical role as a key US military ally since 1995, when it opened large areas of its small territory to establish regional headquarters for the US Fifth Fleet. Today, those facilities include an aircraft carrier, several submarines, naval destroyers, dozens of fighter jets, thousands of American soldiers, and their residential headquarters within this military base, which is considered one of the largest centers of the US military outside the United States.  

According to the aforementioned Bahraini source, the Manama-based US naval force serves as “an advanced American base to carry out Washington’s intelligence and military work in the region, and its presence reflects the latter’s dominance over the political decision in the Kingdom when the need arises.”  

Bahrain is also the headquarters of the Joint Maritime Force, established in 2001 to confront the so-called “threat of international terrorism.” The force includes 39 countries, including Britain, which has established an expanded military occupation on the territory of Bahrain, specifically at Juffair Naval Base since 2018, which represented Britain’s first military base in West Asia in four decades. 

The Bahraini source explains that while the US and UK have all the resources they need in the Persian Gulf to run the new anti-Yemen maritime themselves, what they really needed was Arab cover for these hostile activities:

“In essence, Washington does not need Bahraini forces to secure navigation in the region while it has more than 30,000 soldiers in the  Gulf and it can manage these operations from its various military bases, but it needs Arab cover after many Gulf countries, led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, rejected Arab and Gulf legitimacy (publicly) for this alliance.” 

It is a risky move for Manama. Bahrain’s participation in the naval coalition is unlikely to yield positive outcomes for the state and could pose threats to its strategic security, particularly if Yemen’s Ansarallah forces decide to retaliate against Prosperity Guardian’s strikes.

Targeting Bahrain would be “low-hanging fruit” for the Yemenis, not just because it is small and largely defenseless on its own, but also because it hosts bases for leading western aggressors – the US and UK.

As the opposition leader explains to The Cradle:

Manama also “risks facing further isolation and internal separation, given that the people of Bahrain are unanimous in rejecting the Israeli occupation, covering for it, or working to achieve its interests at the expense of the Palestinian people.” 

Bahrain’s decision to participate in the US-led coalition, despite GCC leaders Saudi Arabia’s own refusal over security concerns, only goes to show the extent of Bahrain’s submission to US hegemony and its new ally Israel. Says another Bahraini source:

“There is no justification for Bahraini participation at a time when Saudi Arabia, its major neighbor, for security considerations rejects confronting Ansarallah and maintains its position on the massacres committed against the Palestinians.”

Riyadh’s recalibration 

The absence of Saudi Arabia from the coalition is especially noteworthy. Disillusioned by past US policies, including the Arab Spring and the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, Riyadh now seems inclined towards a reconciliation with Tehran and has ratcheted up relations with US adversaries Moscow and Beijing, marking a shift in its regional and global strategic considerations.

Rather than deeply engaging in efforts against Israeli aggression or the Iran-led Axis of Resistance, Saudi Arabia appears more focused on dialing down regional conflicts, particularly its own eight-year war against Yemen. The kingdom has welcomed the UN’s road map for peace and Omani-brokered negotiations with Sanaa, indicating a desire to exit the devastating war and shift its focus away from a heavy reliance on US support.

For the Saudis, the ongoing war in Gaza and Yemen’s prominent role in the regional resistance axis present an opportunity to extricate itself from the war against its southern neighbor, in which it is emphasizing a local settlement between Yemeni parties and the Sanaa government led by Ansarallah.

Riyadh showed its direction early, in November, by hosting the Arab-Islamic summit to “dutifully”show solidarity with Gaza without actually taking meaningful action. The Saudis appear uninterested in engaging too heavily in the fracas, whether to halt Israeli aggressions or to confront the “axis of resistance” in whose ranks Yemenis are a vital player. 

Stability after all, is crucial for Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s Vision2030 and its ambitious projects such as NEOM, Expo 2030, and the 2034 FIFA World Cup, prompting a reconsideration of its involvement in yet another US-led regional aggression that offers little upside.

UAE’s geostrategic considerations

The UAE, known for its strategic calculations, appears to be treading much more cautiously in the regional confrontation, and is playing a strong role behind the scenes. When Ansarallah threatened sea lanes, the UAE moved to develop a land bridge through Saudi and Jordanian territories to Israel for the transportation of goods from East Asia.

Although risky for Abu Dhabi to so openly aid Israel’s economy while Tel Aviv imposes a draconian siege on Palestinians in Gaza,  by doing so, the UAE has significantly boosted its economic and political value to the occupation state. In this, the Emiratis have displayed a steadfastness to normalization that could trigger dangerous repercussions should regional confrontation escalate.

Considering the potential backlash, the Emiratis are hesitant to openly support Israel through military naval power, fearing Yemeni and broader Arab and Muslim resentment. Abu Dhabi prioritizes its image as a safe and stable oasis, mindful of Ansarallah’s missile and drone attacks from just a year ago. 

Essentially, the Persian Gulf state aim to avoid jeopardizing their security interests by engaging in ambiguous military actions that could undermine their carefully crafted narrative of stability and progress.

The fate and feasibility of Operation Prosperity Guardian is currently shrouded in uncertainty, particularly in light of recent setbacks and the withdrawal of crucial western allies from participating under a US command. 

The divisions among Persian Gulf states regarding the maritime coalition further highlight a region awakening to the realization that Washington’s dominance is no longer as unassailable as it once seemed. The emerging awareness suggests that Yemen and other members of the Resistance Axis possess the capability to impose a new equation against Israel.

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