Jeffrey Payne, NESA Center
The larger Middle East is a complex security environment. Ongoing civil conflicts, consistent regional rivalries, and persistent attention by outside major powers are but a few of the factors that shape this complex security situation. As such, many Middle Eastern powers have built sophisticated security services that seek to maintain stability internally while protecting against external threats. There are always gaps in security, though, and one that is quite common amongst littoral states throughout the Middle East is found in the maritime space.
Most of the region’s economic powerhouses absolutely rely upon maritime trade for their prosperity. The wealth of GCC member states, for instance, relies upon the constant exportation of natural resource wealth to customers around the world. Egypt’s economic stability and future economic plans are dependent upon its utilization of the Suez Canal and Mediterranean coast for economic multipliers. Iran knows that much of its regional power and its limited economic prospects are tied to both its Gulf and Indian Ocean coastlines. All Middle Eastern littoral states prosper because of the sea, without exception.
For a region whose wealth depends on maritime trade, there is a surprising degree of casualness about Maritime Domain Awareness, or MDA. Put simply, MDA is the ability to effectively recognize the scope and intensity by which the maritime space makes an impact. It is crucial to understand how the maritime space, both in a state’s littoral zone and in international waters, affects economic yield, national security, environmental stability, and political influence.
Yet, the region’s powers continue to have blind spots when it comes to the maritime domain. Smuggling networks continue to exploit the region’s waters to engage in illicit trade of all forms. Tactics referred to under the moniker “gray zone” routinely have a maritime dimension and serious gaps in coastal security continue to exist in some states. It is argued here that the region’s sea blindness is the result of an overreliance on the security provisions of non-regional actors, namely the United States Navy. This is both an incorrect and irresponsible position to hold.
Outside security provision does contribute to maritime security in the wider Middle East, but many regional states have sufficient forces to amplify their effectiveness in the maritime domain. Saudi Arabian and Emirati naval forces revealed both the reach of their maritime capabilities and the depth of their resourcing while supporting operations in Yemen over the past five years. Furthermore, many of the Middle East’s littoral states are members of Combined Maritime Forces (CMF), one of the most successful multilateral maritime partnerships to have ever existed. CMF, through its task forces, has connected regional states with major maritime powers for joint operations intent on addressing challenges at sea.
A littoral state shall never be secure if its waters are not understood. This is why MDA is important – it is a concept that reveals the complexity of the maritime domain. Middle East littoral states clearly recognize the importance of the maritime space. This is why port development has become such a key objective for economic planners, why states are seeking to increase the modernity and size of naval and coast guard forces, and why new technological applications are being deployed to further secure coastlines from various threats. To enhance MDA, however, states must tie various maritime functions together and recognize that security at sea is a cooperative effort.
Relative stability in other regions, such as the Baltic Sea, has been the result of international cooperative efforts amongst regional littoral states, as well as internal work by each state to understand how security, economic, political, and environmental functions interact. The same is true in the case of the Caribbean Sea. There is hope that the Middle East is starting to take MDA seriously. Events in the Red Sea have encouraged greater security cooperation among states, and regional political will is being put behind several efforts on creating a forum to discuss Red Sea security. MDA is a process and an endeavor that is never complete, but a littoral state’s security is dependent on pursuing it. Middle East littoral states cannot afford to ignore the sea any longer.
The views presented in this article are those of the speaker or author and do not necessarily represent the views of DoD or its components.