Hailed as a significant achievement that could potentially turn the page on a decade of chaos and upheaval in the Middle East, the rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia brokered by China has still to produce the awaited breakthrough expected by most observers. Despite the signing of the joint statement in Beijing on the 6th of April that promised to restore full diplomatic relations between the two main powerhouses in the Gulf, the military build-up in the region suggests that old hostile dynamics are not yet fully defused.
Maritime security remains a main point of contention for Gulf partners concerned by the destabilising activities of Iran and its proxies that also indirectly affect the Strait of Hormuz, a vital chokepoint through which transits about 20% of all oil shipments worldwide.
In order to address these concerns, just a few days after the joint statement in Beijing the US Navy announced the deployment of a guided-missile submarine to the region. The USS SSGN-728 Florida will help ensure regional maritime security and stability, according to the spokesperson for the US 5th fleet based in Bahrain. In a subsequent interview, the commander of the US Central Command (CENTCOM) Michael Kurilla also intended to reassure the Gulf partners that Washington continues to stand by their side, despite a common narrative suggesting the US disengagement from the region to pivot to Asia. Commenting on the Red Sands joint military exercise to counter drone attacks that took place in Saudi Arabia in March, Kurilla stressed the importance of artificial intelligence (AI), able to compensate for the reduced military footprint of the US.
Part of the remote warfare strategy adopted by the US in the Gulf, this approach has also informed the establishment of the Task Force 59 by the US Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) in 2021. Including airborne, sailing and underwater drones, the task force represents the new frontier of modern warfare, on which Gulf partners have still a lot to catch up with, as shown by the devastating results of the 2019 attack against the Saudi Aramco facilities. The attack, for which Iran has been considered responsible, marked a turning point in the relations between Gulf partners and the US, whose inaction raised doubts about its role as security provider in a region where Iran keeps the initiative. The seizure of an oil tanker in the Gulf of Oman in late April, followed unsubstantiated claims that its navy forced a US submarine to surface in the Strait of Hormuz, claims denied by the 5th Fleet.
As shown by the most recent development in the conflict in Ukraine, where it has provided Russia with Shaheed loitering munitions, Iran has indeed ramped up domestic production of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), clearly part of its strategy to constrain within or force the US out the region while avoiding direct confrontation. Giving the changing geopolitics driven by a normalisation drive also intended to outsource security commitments to local partners, Gulf countries had increasingly started to look for alternative options to traditional allies often deemed out of touch with the cutting realities of the region. A matter of perception that helps explain the tentative accommodation with Teheran, which also leaves the door open to major inroads by China, according to the multipolar model now informing diplomatic relations in the Middle East.
Associate Fellow for the Conflict, Security and Development Programme at the IISS and Maghreb Analyst for the NATO Defense College Foundation, he regularly publishes on issues such as political developments, security and terrorism in the North Africa region