The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have launched joint naval exercises with Israel for the first time, amid tensions with Iran, the US and Israeli military officials said Thursday.
The five-day maneuvers are taking place in the Red Sea, a year after the two Gulf Arab countries normalized ties with Israel.
“It is exciting to see US forces training with regional partners to enhance our collective maritime security capabilities,” said Vice Admiral 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.”
The exercises, which began on Wednesday, include boarding, search, and seizure training on the USS Portland, an amphibious transport dock ship.
It is the first publicly announced military cooperation by the UAE and Bahrain with Israel since they established diplomatic relations in September last year.
The normalization deals broke with decades of Arab consensus on no diplomatic ties with the Jewish state without a resolution to the Palestinian conflict.
An Israeli military official, who declined to be named, said the drills were also aimed at keeping shipping lanes safe, including from Israel’s arch-foe Iran.
Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, and the United States share concerns about Iran, which has previously been accused of orchestrating attacks on shipping in the region.
The joint naval exercise “will increase cooperation 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.
Iran was blamed for a July 29 drone strike 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 others in the area.
The Rea Sea is linked to the Mediterranean through the strategic Suez Canal, and borders Yemen where a Saudi-led coalition has been fighting alongside government forces against Iran-backed rebels 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.
The Israeli military official said the drills would serve as “deterrence” and also demonstrate “capabilities of defense when needed.”
Iran this week launched its own naval exercises near the strategic Strait of Hormuz, a chokepoint for global oil shipments.