Israel-Hamas War: Middle East Powers Skip U.S.-led Naval Effort to Deter Houthi Rebels

Israel-Hamas War: Middle East Powers Skip U.S.-led Naval Effort to Deter Houthi Rebels

There was a noticeable absence among the participating countries when Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III announced that the United States was organizing a new naval task force to confront the threat from Yemen’s Houthi militia marauding against global shipping in the Red Sea.

No regional power agreed that its navy would participate. The only Middle Eastern country taking part is the tiny island state of Bahrain, and there was otherwise conspicuous silence from regional capitals.

Many Arab countries depend heavily on the trade that flows through the Red Sea, from the Suez Canal in the north to the Bab-al-Mandeb Strait that Yemen abuts in the south. But with the United States’ repeated and vocal announcements of support for Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip fomenting anger among Arab populations, no country in the region seems to want to be associated with the United States in a military venture.

“It is a really uncomfortable and awkward moment for most of the Arab states,” said Dr. Sanam Vakil, the director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, the international affairs think tank in London. “They do not want to be seen as endorsing Israel’s destruction of Gaza and its brutal tactics in any way.”

Iran — a key supporter of the Houthis — has been the most outspoken critic of the U.S. effort, while also trying to walk a fine line. It blasted any joining of the coalition as “direct participation in the crimes of the Zionist entity,” according to a statement by Ali Shamkani, a political adviser to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that was carried by official media.

At the same time, Iran also sought to downplay any direct role in the missile, rocket or drone attacks carried out against Israel or shipping in the Red Sea, claiming that the Houthis were acting on their own. The goal was to avoid attracting the direct ire of the United States, Dr. Vakil said.

Even those states whose trade and revenues depend heavily on keeping the shipping lanes secure are standing back while at least five major shipping companies have said that they will avoid the Red Sea.

Egypt earned a record $9.4 billion from ships transiting the Suez Canal either to or from the Red Sea last year, representing about 2 percent of its gross domestic product and serving as a significant source of foreign exchange. About 12 percent of global trade passes through the canal between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, especially container ships. The only official reaction from Egypt has been a statement on Monday from the Suez Canal Authority saying that it was monitoring the situation.

A cargo ship passes through the Suez Canal in Suez, Egypt, in 2022. Despite the importance of the canal to Egypt’s economy, it and other regional powers have declined to join a naval task force to protect Red Sea shipping.Credit…Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

The port of Jeddah, which handles the bulk of Saudi Arabia’s commercial traffic, sits on the Red Sea, and the entire coastline is a major focus of the economic diversification efforts being pushed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

But Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the Houthis was complicated even before the war in Gaza. After years of effectively losing war with the militia, the Saudis are eager to try to conclude a peace deal and not to enter a new confrontation.

After the U.S. secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, spoke on Monday to his Saudi counterpart, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, the summary of the call by each side was noticeably different. The American version noted that Mr. Blinken urged cooperation on maritime security to confront the Houthis, the Saudi version said the main point of the call was developments in Gaza.

Oman, which mediates between the international community and the Houthis, has declined to pressure the Houthis to stop their attacks on shipping, saying that a Gaza cease-fire must come first, according to a person who was briefed by Omani officials and spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations.

Many nations have been concerned that the Gaza war might yet inflame the region. But there are more countries that might support the task force, which so far also includes Britain, Canada, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, the Seychelles and Spain. Bahrain, which hosts an American naval base and recently concluded a security agreement with the United States, and the United Arab Emirates, which has also been involved in the long war against the Houthis in Yemen.

In response to the announcement, a group of Bahrainis called for a demonstration on Friday to protest their government’s participation in the task force, and the country’s leading opposition group, al-Wefaq, denounced the government’s decision, saying it made Bahrain “a direct partner in the shedding of Palestinian blood.”

Privately, many Arab states are content to see the United States get into a confrontation with one of Iran’s proxy forces, Dr. Vakil said.

In recent months, Iran has sought to flex its muscles, noting that the Houthis formed one point of its so-called “Axis of Resistance,” its term grouping various allies in Arab world, such as Hezbollah and Hamas. Last week, before the naval task force was announced, Iran’s defense minister, Mohammed Reza Ashtiani, warned against it, saying, “The Red Sea is our region and we control it, and no one can maneuver in it.”

Disrupting Western trade routes dovetails with Iranian efforts to confront the United States and its allies, and anything that drives up oil prices only increases its revenue. Even so, it has sought to avoid escalating the Gaza conflict into a regional war.

An Iranian deputy foreign minister, Ali Bagheri Kani, recently tried to distance Tehran from its Houthi allies, saying at a news conference in Tokyo on Monday that the group was acting independently when it came to its operations against ships.

“The Yemeni government has announced that they will prevent assistance to Israel as long as the Zionists continue their crimes against people in Gaza,” Mr. Bagheri Kani was quoted as saying by the official Islamic Republic News Agency. He called the Houthis “an independent player in the international scene.”

Vivian Nereim and Nada Rashwan contributed reporting.