Maritime Security in the Middle East and North Africa: A Strategic Assessment

Political instability in Egypt, Somalia, and Yemen has raised security risks for the global shipping industry in the waters of the Middle East and North Africa. As regional governments struggle to provide physical and economic security to impoverished populations, pirates and terrorist groups have taken advantage of these power vacuums, placing commercial vessels and trade infrastructure at risk.

At the same time, Iran continues to maintain naval forces that have loomed as a threat to commerce since the Tanker Wars of the 1980s. As Western progress toward rapprochement with Iran remains uncertain, and the Syrian Civil War strains Iranian-Gulf Arab relations, maritime trade could very well become a target of Iran’s forces in the event of conflict.

The Burke Chair analyzes these threats in a new report entitled Maritime Security in the Middle East and North Africa: A Strategic Assessment, available on the CSIS at

The waterways of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA region) facilitate the export of large volumes of oil and natural gas from the region, while also bridging trade and commerce through the Red Sea and Suez Canal. The U.S. Energy Information Administration considers three of the region’s waterways – the Strait of Hormuz, the Bab el-Mandab, and the Suez Canal – to be chokepoints in the transportation of oil, and essential logistical nodes for global energy security.

The report identifies the most salient threats to maritime security in the region as being the proliferation of terrorism in Egypt and its implications on Suez Canal security, the risks posed by Iranian naval forces to shipping in the Gulf, and the evolving threat posed by Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden and the broader Indian Ocean. The naval and coast guard capabilities of stakeholder states are discussed, as well as international efforts to assist regional governments in countering these threats.

The analysis concludes that maritime security efforts can be strengthened through a reorientation of foreign assistance to regional states. As the United States calibrates its security assistance to Egypt, the training of naval forces and the development of sound rules of engagement for Egyptian government counterterrorism efforts should be made priorities as they have a direct bearing on U.S. economic interests in the Suez Canal.

More broadly, greater emphasis should be placed on developing naval assistance programs with the Gulf Arab states. For years, such programs have taken a back seat to fighter aircraft programs of limited practical value in countering a naval and asymmetrically-oriented Iran. By focusing on naval capabilities and developing the human capital needed to utilize them, the United States can promote a policy of sustainable defense in the region. As regional capabilities improve and become integrated, these states will be able to play a larger role in countering Iranian forces and protecting against piracy. A reliance on outside powers can give way to local ownership over regional maritime security.

The United States could also work at the national and international levels to further promote and institutionalize the use of the Best Management Practices (BMP) recommended by the shipping industry, as well as the use of armed security contractors aboard vessels transiting the High Risk Area (HRA). These measures have proven to be the most effective means of preventing and deterring pirate attacks. However, much could still be done to promote and safely regulate the use of such forces.

Robert M. Shelala II