Security

Gulf states in first joint naval exercises with Israel in Red Sea

By Al-Mashareq and AFP

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Fighter jets from Saudi Arabia and Israel flew alongside a US B-1 bomber over the region on November 12. [US Air Force]

MANAMA -- The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain were on Monday (November 15) wrapping up five days of joint naval exercises with Israel in the Red Sea, which signal a new phase of co-operation between them.

The manoeuvres, which began Wednesday, come a year after the two Gulf states normalised ties with Israel, and include boarding, search and seizure training on the USS Portland, an amphibious transport dock ship, military officials said.

"It is exciting to see US forces training with regional partners to enhance our collective maritime security capabilities," said Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, commander of US Naval Forces Central Command.

"Maritime collaboration helps safeguard freedom of navigation and the free flow of trade, which are essential to regional security and stability," he said.

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The San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock USS Portland (LPD 27) transits the Pacific Ocean in a photo taken January 19. [US Navy]

It is the first publicly announced military co-operation by the UAE and Bahrain with Israel since they established diplomatic relations in September last year.

An Israeli military official, who declined to be named, said the drills also were aimed at keeping shipping lanes safe, including from Iran.

Israel, the UAE, Bahrain and the United States share concerns about Iran, which previously has been accused of orchestrating attacks on shipping in the region.

The joint naval exercise "will increase co-operation and the safety of the sea, not just the Red Sea, because we are dealing with Iranian terror", the official said.

"This terror has many dimensions as you saw with the Mercer Street (tanker) a couple of months ago," he added.

'Deterrence'

Iran was blamed for a July 29 drone strike off the Oman coast on the tanker MT Mercer Street operated by a London-based firm ultimately owned by Israeli shipping magnate Eyal Ofer.

The strike killed a former British soldier and a Romanian.

Iran denied it was responsible for that attack, or for others in the area. A US investigation of the Mercer attack contained evidence that clearly incriminated Iran.

The Rea Sea is linked to the Mediterranean through the strategic Suez Canal, and borders Yemen, where the Arab coalition has been battling the Iran-backed Houthis alongside Yemeni government forces since 2015.

It lies next to the Gulf of Aden, which saw a rash of attacks on shipping by Somali-based pirates in the first decade of the 21st century before patrols by navies from around the world largely halted them.

"There is desire by many countries -- including some surprising ones -- to move closer to us and to co-operate," Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said during remarks to the cabinet last week, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported.

Bennett pointed to the recently concluded Blue Flag exercise, hosted by Israel, which saw participating aircraft from eight countries and a "landmark visit" from the chief of the UAE air force. He also pointed to the Red Sea naval exercises.

"Whoever needs to get the message, will get it," he said.

The Israeli military official said the drills would serve as "deterrence" and also demonstrate "capabilities of defence when needed".

Iran last week launched its own naval exercises near the strategic Strait of Hormuz, a chokepoint for global oil shipments.

The joint naval exercises with Israel come as US special envoy for Iran Robert Malley is leading an interagency team to the UAE, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain from November 11 to 20 to hold consultations and attend a series of engagements.

"He will co-ordinate our approaches on a broad range of concerns with Iran, including its destabilising activities in the region," Malley's office said.

This will include the upcoming seventh round of talks on a mutual return to full compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

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