SUPPLY-CHAIN SECURITYRed Sea Attacks: Why Arab Nations Won't Join Naval Coalition

By Cathrin Schaer

Published 23 December 2023

The U.S. has announced a naval coalition to protect shipping from Houthi attacks, but only one Middle Eastern country has joined. Why have others — like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt — not done so? Each of these states has its own reasons, but analysts say that the one thing the three powers have in common is the fact that they don’t want to be seen as working in defense of Israel.

When the US announced a naval coalition to protect commercial vessels traveling in the Red Sea earlier this week, the Americans initially said there would be 10 countries taking part. Questions arose almost immediately about why some of the largest Arab naval powers were not.

Since mid-November, the Houthi rebel group in Yemen has been firing rockets and sending drones to harass ships traveling through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. A senior Houthi official said on social media that this won’t stop “until the crimes of genocide in Gaza are stopped and food, medicine and fuel are allowed to enter its besieged population.”

Enmity with Israel is a strategic raison d’etre for the Houthis,” Daniel Gerlach, an expert on the region, told DW recently. “It’s part of their claim that Israel is their main enemy, although actually there is of course no direct territorial conflict with Israel. [But] they want to show the entire Muslim and the Arab world that they’re on the side of the Palestinians.”

On November 19, the rebel group, which has been involved in a civil war at home since 2015 and now controls a large part of the country, hijacked the Galaxy Leader, a cargo ship co-owned by an Israeli businessman.

Other ships have been attacked with drones and in one case, another ship was even briefly boarded.

The harassment has mostly happened in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait which connects the Gulf of Aden with the Red Sea and is 32 kilometers (about 20 miles) wide at its narrowest point. It allows ships access to the Suez Canal, the shortest way between Europe and Asia.

As a result, several major shipping companies have suspended operations passing through the strait.

The proposed US naval coalition to protect commercial shipping against Houthi threats is called Operation Prosperity Guardian.”The US has invited all 38 other members of what is known as the Combined Maritime Forces, or CMF, a US-led maritime security coalition in the Middle East, to join it. 

So far, only nine countries have publicly said they will join the US: Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, the Seychelles and the UK