By Alexander Cornwell and Pesha Magid
DUBAI/RIYADH, Dec 20 (Reuters) – 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 U.S.-equipped military, has been waging war on the Houthis for nearly nine years and relies on Red Sea ports for 36% of imports, Saudi Arabia along with the Persian Gulf ally the United Arab Emirates has proclaimed no interest in the venture.
The main reason for its absence 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 the Palestinian Hamas group in Gaza.
Whether their attacks are having much direct impact on Israel – shipping companies say several targeted vessels were not headed there – their campaign has hit Israel’s Western allies by complicating global trade. On Wednesday their leader threatened to expand this campaign to U.S. naval vessels.
U.S. officials have avoided saying outright that the two countries will not take part, and spokespeople for both the Saudi and Emirati governments did not respond to Reuters requests for comment on the matter.
But whether they are completely uninvolved or have some background role, both countries 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 Persian Gulf familiar with the matter said the Saudi and Emirati 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 U.S. 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 9-year-old war in Yemen, which has become a draining stalemate that has damaged their reputations 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. It still backs groups in Yemen and the Houthis targeted its capital Abu Dhabi with drone and missile attacks last year.
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 by hosting the 2034 World Cup.
Israel’s war in Gaza with full-throated U.S. backing after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel threatens to thwart this dream, plunging the region into a new era of uncertainty and roiling Arab anger against the West and its Persian Gulf allies.
The war has chilled Emirati ties with Israel, derailed Saudi-Israeli normalisation talks and made any embrace of U.S. 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.
By contrast, Iran stands at the head of what it calls the Axis of Resistance, a loose coalition that includes Hamas as well as armed Shi’ite Muslim groups around the region that have militarily confronted Israel and its Western allies.
Iran denies Saudi and Western claims it gives material backing to the Houthis, part of its Axis of Resistance, or provides them with direction. But it has made plain its view on the Red Sea coalition.
“Any country joining the American coalition to deal with this (Houthi) action is a direct participant in the killing of children by the Zionist regime,” Ali Shamkhani, an adviser to Iran‘s supreme leader, said in a social media post.
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 U.S. security umbrella.
The United States “is probably not delighted” that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have not publicly signed up for the taskforce said former U.S. 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”.
Despite years of disagreements over elements of Middle East policy, the United States remains Saudi Arabia’s most important ally and its main military supplier.
That may raise questions over whether there is a role for Saudi Arabia behind the scenes to work more with the United States on Red Sea security.
Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE were already members of a U.S.-led Combined Maritime Force operating in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea, though the UAE said in May it was leaving that grouping.
Asked directly about the two Persian 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”.
(Reporting by Alexander Cornwell in Dubai, Pesha Magid in Riyadh and Humeyra Pamuk in Washington; Additional reporting by Jonathan Landay, Heather Timmons, Phil Stewart and Nandita Bose in Washington and Elwely Elwelly in Dubai; Writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Howard Goller)