French soldier in the Combined Maritime Force 150 (Wikimedia)

The UAE Withdrawal from the Combined Maritime Forces: Reasons and Consequences


Thu, 15-06-2023 06:09 PM, Aden

This came concurrently with the resumption of the diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran and the latter announcement on a joint security alliance in the Arab Gulf.

Dr. Eman Zahran (South24)

Some regional and international variables may push toward redrawing alliances in the Red Sea. The most important of them is what was declared by the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs regarding their withdrawal from the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) in May. This came concurrently with the resumption of the diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran and the latter announcement on a joint security alliance in the Arab Gulf. This is in addition to the depth of competition among the international forces, especially "Washington, Moscow, and Beijing" on positioning in the Red Sea. The determinant of "the US departure" from the region should not be ignored as it may push for reconsidering the security cards in the region. This is based on reading and evaluating the reasons and determinants of the latest moves by Abu Dhabi regarding the security arrangements in the Red Sea and their consequences on the map of alliances in the region as illustrated below:

What is the Combined Maritime Forces?

In 2001, the CMF was established as a permanent global maritime partnership. It includes about 38 countries across the world. It aims at carrying out maritime security operations (MSO) to support the frameworks of security and stability in the Red Sea. This is amid the increase of several security complications and different threats against international navigation as a result of the failure of the political settlement plans in the troubled countries overlooking the Red Sea, foremost of which are Yemen and the Horn of Africa states. This also includes the ramifications of this point on terrorism issues and the threats by non-state actors such as the AQAP and the Houthis. Moreover, the CMF has played a role in combating drug trafficking and all emergent threats as follows: [1]

- Protecting the free flow of legitimate trade in the Red Sea.

- Encircling terrorism, extremist movements, and other non-state organizations (such as ISIS, AQAP, the Houthis, Iran's Revolutionary Guards and etc..).

- The involvement in strategic participation with regional partners and the main regional stakeholders.

Given the number of tasks entrusted to the CMF, five sub-forces were consecutively established under the umbrella of the CMF for encircling and confronting different ongoing and possible security contexts that gather between the traditional and non-traditional threats as well as adapting with the momentum of political developments in addition to the regional and international crises as detailed below: [2]

- CTF150: It was established in 2002 and primarily aims at encircling the work of terrorist organizations and besieging their illegal activities in addition to its participation in maritime intelligence operations which are planned to secure maritime navigation and obstruct all illegal operations of the terrorist groups in that region.

- CTF151: It was established in 2009 to intensify cooperation with regional partners for besieging piracy and illegal activities in the maritime environment. Furthermore, its moves support "building capabilities among different partners such as the maritime forces affiliated with the European Union EU-NAVFOR to secure free navigation and protect international maritime trade corridors".

- CTF152: It was established in 2004. The scope of its work is considered among the most important areas regionally and internationally. It is based in the Arab Gulf region which is a hotbed of much political and security turmoil. Its forces are from the GCC states and are supported by assets affiliated with the CMF.

- CTF153: It was established in 2022 and aims at protecting international maritime security and enhancing the building capability efforts in the Red Sea, Bab Al-Mandab, and the Gulf of Aden. [3]

- CTF154: It was established on May 22 to train maritime security forces in different locations in the Middle East. It organizes periodic training that focuses on 5 areas including "maritime awareness, navigation laws, interception operations, rescue operations, support, and leadership development". [4]

Accordingly, the formation of the CMF and the 5 sub-task forces reflects a compressive reality in the maritime territory. This requires moving to achieve two goals, the first is to protect the interests of the international forces and support the agenda of their regional allies. The second one is to secure the navigation movement in the international lanes in the Red Sea and the neighboring water bodies such as the Gulf of Aden and Bab Al-Mandab. This is based on the scale of ongoing and possible threats in that region according to the latest changes at both regional and international levels.

- The escalation of proxy illegal activities: The region witnesses an increase in the activities of non-state actors in several vital fields that threaten the security of the maritime region. This includes, for example, the activities of terrorist groups (AQAP-ISIS) and the branches of these organizations in the Horn of Africa states after their decline in the Arab East and Yemen such as the Mujahideen Youth Movement.

- The failure of political settlement in Yemen: This dilemma paves the way for the continuation of various threats against the Red Sea amid the Houthi security violations. This includes, for example, the Houthi moves in Hodeidah and their threats against its three ports: Hodeidah, Salif, and Ras Isa.

- The increase in piracy activities in the Gulf of Aden and the Horn of Africa: The waves of the Arab movements in 2011 came simultaneously with the rise of several terrorist and extremist groups in many security-troubled states, especially Somalia. They have had various impacts leading to turmoil in the international navigation movement, whether in the Red Sea or the east and South of Africa. Moreover, these threats have led to an increase in the cost of maritime security against risks. [5]

- Encircling the Turkish presence in Sudan: In 2017, Sudan gave Turkey the right to manage the Suakin Islands. This constitutes a strategic belt for the Turkish influence in the region. This is in light of Turkey's presence in both northern Iraq and Syria, the flexible openness to Qatar, the military base in Somalia in 2016, and the latest positioning in Sudan.

- Besieging the Iranian threats: This is attained through thwarting Iranian plans for expansion and seizing control on the Straits of Hormuz and Bab Al-Mandab, whether directly, through the moves by Iran's Revolutionary Guards in the Red Sea or indirectly through funding and supporting its arms in the region, foremost of which is the Houthis in a way that threatens maritime navigation in the region.

- The growing international competition in the Red Sea: This problem is built on the military positioning of the international forces in the Red Sea given the increase of the international military bases. For example, Djibouti hosts many international military bases such as the American, French, and Chinese bases. This could push for more tension and turmoil in the region in a way that reproduces the dynamics of the Cold War.

The reasons for withdrawal

In a move that paves the way for the beginning of a new chapter in the methodology of the UAE-US relationships, the UAE announced, following recent talks with the US regarding maritime security, that "It will be committed to the peaceful dialogue and diplomatic ways as means to enhance the joint goals represented in regional security and stability". Due to the ongoing assessment of effective security cooperation with all partners, the UAE withdrew from its participation in the CMF two months ago. It announced its commitment to guarantee safe navigation in its seas responsibly according to the international law". [6] This move can be viewed as part of many determinants, the most prominent of which are:

- The US exposure: The latest tensions in the Red Sea signify the decline of the "American cop" hypothesis and the exposure of the "US protectionism" scenario. This has pushed Abu Dhabi to gradually disengage from Washington. This is given a number of determinants, the first of which is what was declared by US President Joe Biden in several official speeches about the withdrawal from the Middle East and heading towards eastern Asia. The second one is the US involvement in the various paths of the Russian-Ukrainian war and the attempt to besiege a third-world war scenario built on the multipolar hypothesis in the international system and turning a blind eye towards the security priorities in the region. The third one is the US failure to protect the interests of regional allies in the region, foremost of which is the UAE, from the growing Iranian harassment of ships in the region. The latter has the most important waterways globally and is very important for oil supplies.

- The Iranian moves: This is in light of the changes in the region following the resumption of diplomatic Iranian-Saudi relationships. This paves the way towards reconsidering securing all joint files, the foremost of which is the "security of Gulf water". The security agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, signed in 2001 [7] is likely to be activated and revised in line with understanding the scale of the new security challenges in the various files of the region and preserving the stability, safety, and security of maritime navigation.

- Reassessing priorities: The UAE seeks to diversify partners in a way that ensures the sustainability of "the security margin". This was reflected in a number of scenes, including the normalization with Israel, flexible rapprochement with Turkey, and the expansion of its relations with heavy-weight countries such as Brazil, India, and South Africa. Additionally, Abu Dhabi may seek to barter its withdrawal from the CMF to obtain more US weapons and security guarantees. [8]

Possible ramifications 

Although it is too early to ensure the possible ramifications of the UAE withdrawal decision and its impact on all maritime security arrangements, there is a number of possible concerns given the scale of the UAE's weight and its direct and indirect security coordination with the region's actors as shown below:

- Redrawing the maritime alliance map in the region: This hypothesis is built on the diversity of security alliances in the Red Sea and their intertwined agendas that intersect with each other. This is based on the agendas of their members, the international forces that influence the strength of the alliance, and the size of the organizational structure. For example, this includes the US-led CMF, the Saudi-led Arab Coalition, and the Afro-Arabs Alliance [9] which connects the countries sharing the Red Sea from the “Horn of Africa, east of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula” to form an “Arab-African” regional equation for the security of the Red Sea.

- The decline of the security coordination in the maritime region: This is related to the previous hypothesis given the diversity of the security alliances in the region and the intersection of their agendas in addition to the positioning of the rival international forces in the maritime territory. The US, Russia, China, and several European countries such as France and Britain are stationed there. We should not ignore the aspirations of regional forces "Israel and Iran" as each of them hold different agendas due to the difference in their security concepts according to the current regional and international changes imposed after the Corona pandemic. This is in addition to the tests of the different impacts of the Russian-Ukrainian war on all sub-regions.

- The gradual disengagement between the Gulf States and the US: This hypothesis depends on analyzing the political discourse of three consecutive US administrations. The latter failed to provide full protection to the US allies and partners in the Arabian Gulf. For example, the political speeches of Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden included the hypothesis of the US departure from the Middle East and the gradual dissolution of Washington's security and material commitments to the region.

Accordingly, the UAE withdrawal from the CMF raises many questions about its future and the organizational structure as well as the feasibility of these basic premises of this withdrawal. This is in light of the entanglement of reasons that support that decision between Abu Dhabi's desire to barter the ongoing withdrawal with more US security packages and besiege the Iranian moves in the UAE vital field. This comes in the wake of Tehran's openness to Saudi Arabia and the resumption of diplomatic relationships and security arrangements between the two countries. A question remains whether the Middle Eastern states will follow this UAE path, or whether it will be adapted in a way that matches the sub-national agenda. This is the hypothesis that will be tested over the incoming periods.

Dr. Eman Zahran

Egyptian researcher, specializing in international relations and regional security


1- Combined Maritime Forces (CMF).

2- Ibid.

3- The Dimensions of the Establishment of CTF-153 and the New American Role in the Red Sea, Emirates Policy Center, 25/5/2022.

4- Uday Abdullah, What does the UAE Withdrawal from CMF Mean?

5- Major General of Staff, Dr. Mohammed Qashqosh, The Establishment of Joint Forces for the Red Sea States and the Presence of the Main Command Center in Jeddah, Araa Magazine, 31/12/2018.

6- The UAE rejects the wrong descriptions of its talks with the US regarding maritime security, UAE news agency WAM, 31/5/2023.

7- Faris Almasri, Clarifying the Status of Previous Iran-Saudi Agreements, the Washington Institute, 26/3/2023.

8- The UAE's Withdrawal from the Combined Maritime Forces... a Real Reduction in Partnership with Washington, or a Negotiating Tactic?, UAE71, 3/6/2023.

9- The Red Sea Alliance and the Revival of the Concept of "Afrabia", Future Center for Advanced Research and Studies, 12/1/2020.

CMFCombined Maritime ForcesUAEUSAArab GulfIran