The “Abraham equation”, which refers here to the developing cooperation among the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Israel, and the United States, strengthens regional maritime alliances in the Middle East, especially in the Red Sea. The main goal is still to counter Iran, its allies — such as Yemen’s Ansar Allah (the Houthis)— and proxies. However, the UAE, to a lesser extent Saudi Arabia (who did not normalise relations with Tel Aviv), and Israel increasingly show different perceptions and policies as regards Tehran. In fact, as the Israeli posture remained unchanged, the Emiratis returned to a diplomacy-first foreign policy, while the Saudis are directly talking with the Iranians in Iraq. As such, this cooperation faces the following dilemma: will Abu Dhabi — and Riyadh to a lesser extent — try to mitigate Israel’s stance on Iran? Part of the answer is likely to depend on the evolution of the conflict in Yemen, especially along its Western coast.
Unprecedented naval military drills
Under the coordination of the US Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT), the UAE, Bahrain, and Israel held unprecedented naval military drills (11th-16th November 2021) in the Red Sea; a direct outcome of the “Abraham Accords” through which Abu Dhabi and Manama normalised diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv in 2020. The exercises encompassed “visit, board, search and seizure tactics” aimed at helping “to ensure freedom of navigation” and international trade. As it lacks official relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia remains out of the “Abraham Equation”, also at a maritime level. This is likely to reduce Saudi operative choices in the medium to long term, although Riyadh has usually opted for bilateral relations with the US and regional partners.
While the five-day maritime drills were taking place, the UAE-backed Yemeni Joint Forces withdrew from Hodeidah (Yemen’s main port on the Red Sea) and the South of the governorate to redeploy in other frontlines (mainly Marib and Shabwa). The Joint Forces are an anti-Houthi, composite military umbrella led by Tareq Saleh, the former President’s nephew. The withdrawal indirectly allowed the Iran-supported Ansar Allah (the Houthis) to take over vacated positions on the ground. For this reason, the 2018 “Stockholm Agreement” seems to be on the brink.
The United Nations Mission to Support the Hodeidah Agreement (UNMHA), the civilian mission monitoring the implementation of the “Stockholm Agreement”, was not previously informed about the Joint Forces’ withdrawal, who are increasingly divided between the Saleh’s Guards of the Republic component, the Giants Brigades and the local Tihama Resistance’s fighters. The internationally-recognized government was also unaware of the plans.
Yemen’s Western coast
Against this backdrop, two interconnected dynamics will shape the geopolitical outcome of the “Abraham equation” in the Red Sea, that is, de-escalation or confrontation vis-à-vis Iran and its regional allies. First, the Iranian-related destabilising activities and the low-intensity, shadow maritime warfare between Israel and Iran. Second, Ansar Allah’s enduring presence in Yemen’s Western coast and its growing asymmetric capabilities to strike and disrupt targets in the Red Sea.
From Yemen, the Houthis have adopted “maritime drones” as tools of hybrid warfare since 2017: without a quick diplomatic entente for de-confliction, Ansar Allah’s strengthened presence in Hodeidah will enhance the maritime threat, putting further pressure on Saudi Arabia. So far, unmanned explosive boats have targeted both civilian vessels (such as oil tankers) and Saudi port facilities (including Jeddah). In September 2021, a Houthi attack comprising drones and missiles left the Yemeni port of Mokha largely destroyed. The infrastructure had been closed to commercial shipping since 2015 and was to resume civilian activities after a likely Emirati-supported rehabilitation. Now, the redeployment of the UAE-backed Joint Forces away from Hodeida — a battlefield under formal ceasefire “while various front line require support” according to them— could favour the Houthis in the city, boosting violence on the ground as well as maritime tensions.
Partners for security
The countering of asymmetric threats and the protection of littoral targets currently sit at the top of regional Navies’ priorities, in the Red Sea and beyond. Egypt is also part of the “Abraham equation”: for the first time since its restructuring, a US warship visited the Berenice interforce base in August 2021. Israel’s officials confirmed that Israeli naval activity in the area has grown “exponentially” over the past three years, including the deployment of missile frigates and submarines.
The US Navy 5th Fleet (headquartered in Bahrain, but whose area of responsibility also covers the Red Sea, the Bab el-Mandeb, and the Gulf of Aden) has just launched a new task force, Task Force 59: it incorporates airborne, sailing, and underwater drones. The aim is to increase deterrence and maritime awareness, especially in shallow waters, monitoring surface and underwater activities.
Bahrain was the first regional partner to collaborate with the American Task Force 59 in October 2021: on that occasion, NAVCENT completed the “New Horizon” exercise, integrating not only its unmanned surface vessels with a manned patrol craft, but doing this at sea alongside partner forces.
The US in Red security governance
Against this backdrop, the “Abraham equation” in maritime defence can be more impactful on Red Sea security governance, in the medium to long term, than a multidimensional forum such as the Saudi-driven Red Sea Council, which includes Israel but not the UAE (who has consistent geostrategic influence, although not a geographical border, in the Red Sea).
For the United States, the naval side of this ‘regionalisation of security’ trend, highlighted by the Emirati-Bahraini-Israeli joint naval drills, is certainly a good news. The US’ partial disengagement from Middle Eastern security could be balanced through enhanced maritime defence capabilities from the region, naval cooperation, and interoperability among partners.
The latest US choices emphasise this direction. After the “Abraham Accords”, the Pentagon moved Israel from EUCOM (United States European Command) to CENTCOM (United States Central Command) to foster closer cooperation between the Gulf monarchies and Israel. In January 2021, Washington signed a preliminary agreement with Saudi Arabia to use airbases and ports in the West of the kingdom (Yanbu, Tabuk, Taif). These steps highlight the US’ “flexible logistics network” approach to Middle Eastern security, which pivots on regional allies’ facilities and pushes security architectures rooted in the region, thus reducing its direct presence and exposition.
Nuanced perspectives among allies?
In Yemen, Ansar Allah’s seize of Hodeidah indirectly strengthens Iran’s leverage in the area, offering Tehran a potential and ‘friendly’ access to the Red Sea. This military-political development raises worries in Tel Aviv, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi, too, since the Emirati federation has significant geostrategic interests in the Red Sea and the Bab el-Mandeb sub-region.
However, in recent months, political visions, strategies, language, and threat perceptions have all changed among allies in the Middle East. Only Israel’s stance vis-à-vis Iran and its regional allies has remained consistently unchanged. As such, developments on the Yemeni Western coast play a crucial role in how the “Abraham equation” will shape security options and medium to long term security governance in the Red Sea.
 The 2018 “Stockholm Agreement” (on the city of Hodeida and the ports of Hodeidah, Ras Isa and al-Salif) agrees upon three steps: ceasefire, withdrawal and troops redeployment in the main port city and the two neighbouring ports.