The Saudi Royal Navy will join the world’s largest mixed naval exercise in the Gulf, led by the United States, at a time of increased tensions with regional foe Iran.
The kingdom’s Defence Ministry announced in a statement on Friday that Saudi Arabia will be among the 56 counties taking part in the IMX 19 naval war games.
The exercise is taking place in the north of the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman, the Arabian Sea, the coast of Djibouti and the Gulf of Aqaba. It began on Monday, 21 October and will run until 15 November.
Touted as “the world’s most inclusive maritime exercise,” IMX 19 aims at fostering relationships and interoperability between supporting forces and maritime security operations in order to deter “threats to freedom of navigation and maritime trade.”
It consists of four phases, including staff build-up and training, seminars and table-top discussions, the at-sea fleet training exercise and re-deployment of forces.
The drills come as concerns over security in the Middle East have increased following a series of attacks on tankers in the Gulf of Oman in May and June, where Saudi vessels were involved.
The kingdom blamed those attacks on Iran, which denied any role. An Iranian tanker, in turn, was damaged in explosions off the coast of Saudi Arabia in the Red Sea earlier this month.
A separate development that put navigation in the region into scrutiny was the tanker row between Britain and Iran. A tanker carrying 2.1 million barrels of Iranian crude oil – cargo worth around $130 million – was detained by authorities in the UK overseas territory of Gibraltar in early July over suspicion of carrying crude to Syria in violation of EU sanctions.
While the ship was still in detention (it was released in mid-August), Iranian forces seized a British-flagged tanker on allegations of breaking maritime rules. Authorities in Tehran said the case was unrelated to the Gibraltar detention, but local commanders at the time made it clear that the move came in retaliation to Britain.
The incident prompted Britain to join an international mission to protect ships passing through the Persian Gulf by deploying two warships there.
Last year, US President Donald Trump re-imposed – and later tightened – financial, trade and energy sanctions on Iran, after withdrawing from the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear programme.
Iran has accused the UK and other European countries of failing to shield it from the crippling sanctions and started suspending its commitments under the deal. Tehran stated it would only enter negotiations with the United States if the latter returns to the nuclear deal and suspends its sanctions.