A senior US navy commander has suggested Gulf states could take on a greater responsibility for regional security at sea and help counter any threat posed by Iran.
Erich Frandrup said he was keen to examine the possibility of a shift in naval operations in the region, with potential for the GCC to have “more leadership roles”.
US and European nations currently play a dominant part in maritime security in the Arabian Gulf, with the American Fifth Fleet based in Bahrain.
However, defence analysts are aware that the combined forces of Gulf countries outnumber Iran’s naval fleet, as do their sizable defence budgets.
Speaking at the Gulf Security Symposium at the Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research, Commander Frandrup said the Atlantic Council, for which he is US Navy Senior Fellow, was considering carrying out a study looking into a reorganisation.
“In light of what Fifth Fleet is doing in the region, the existing maritime partnerships that are operating, unilateral operations and the evolving Iranian threat, I think we ought to be looking at this problem collectively to counter what Iran is doing,” he said.
“I’ll pose a question - does the status quo suffice? I think it’s mutually beneficial to take a holistic look across the region to see if there are better ways to conduct maritime security.”
Commander Frandrup, who emphasised that he was not speaking on behalf of the US government or military, said a study could look at a range of issues including barriers to some nations taking on a more prominent role in maritime security.
“What I’m offering is a study, which the Atlantic Council is considering doing, which is taking a holistic look across the region to look at some of these [issues],” Commander Frandrup, who was deployed four times to the Middle East in a 17 year military career, said.
“And not only identify them, but look at opportunities for GCC countries in general to take more leadership roles.
“Not that the US would instantly leave, but the US can maybe be more in a US leadership role to enable a GCC maritime security effort.”
GCC countries began "enhanced security patrols" of international waters within the Arabian Gulf in May last year.
The announcement came amid heightened tensions between Tehran and the US after four commercial vessels, including two Saudi oil tankers, were damaged in attacks off the coast of the UAE.
The Emirates is part of the Combined Maritime Forces, a multinational navy partnership tasked with promoting security and stability in international waters. Other Gulf member nations include Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
Commander Frandrup made his remarks during a conference that was largely dominated by discussions over the threat posed by Iran.
Relations between Tehran and Washington have worsened significantly following the US assassination of Qassem Suleimani last month.
Iran has been regularly accused of harassing both military and civilian ships in the Arabian Gulf over recent years and has threatened to shut the Strait of Hormuz, a vital waterway for oil exports.
Among a 10-point communique issued following the Abu Dhabi conference, the symposium recommended that oil exporting GCC countries "assume the main role in protecting their key exports" and "make significant investments in maritime defence".
In a keynote address, Anwar Gargash, UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, emphasised that the UAE wanted to see a peaceful region but warned that tensions would inevitably remain.
“This issue will stay with us and we have to manage it in a better way, until we reach a future stage where we can get the basis for a better order,” he said.
“It is vitally important that researchers discuss this issue, having in mind the security of the area and its prosperity, so as to avoid all conflicts and preserve our achievements.”
Dr Gargash hit out at Iranian interference in other nations’ affairs in the region, while also criticising its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.
But he also said that he hoped the situation would improve in time.
“We need to have understanding and trust building," he said. "We cannot achieve security without understanding and trust building.”
The conference also heard reaction to the ongoing dispute with Qatar, and the prospects of a resolution, come under discussion following a cut off in trade links in 2017.
“It was a result of Doha’s interference policies,” Dr Gargash said. “The solution for this crisis should be based on dealing with the causes of it.”