Israel participates in huge U.S. Mideast naval exercise alongside Saudi, Oman

Dubai (Reuters) – Israel is taking part in a huge U.S.-led naval exercise in the Middle East, for the first time publicly joining Saudi Arabia and Oman, two counties it has no diplomatic relations with despite its normalisation of ties with some Gulf states.

The International Maritime Exercise 2022 (IMX 22) includes around 60 countries and comes amid heightened Gulf tensions after missile attacks on the United Arab Emirates by Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi movement, including a foiled attack aimed at a base hosting U.S. forces.

Israel normalised relations with Gulf states the UAE and Bahrain in 2020, brought together by shared worries about Iran, and first held a joint naval drill with those two countries in November.

But this is the first time Israel has participated in an IMX exercise, and publicly alongside Saudi Arabia with which it has no diplomatic ties.

Gulf neighbours Kuwait and Qatar, who also have no formal relations with Israel, did not participate, according to U.S. Navy information.

Bahrain hosts the U.S. Navy Fifth Fleet’s headquarters as well as some operations for CENTCOM, a U.S. military coordination umbrella organisation for the Middle East. Israel last year was included in CENTCOM.

A U.S. Navy spokesperson on Wednesday said exercise planners were aware of the geopolitical context of participating countries, but cooperation had been high.

“Here in the region we have had nothing but positive results in terms of planning efforts,” he said.

The Israeli Defence Force said on Monday that some units would participate in the Red Sea exercise with the U.S. Fifth Fleet.

“For the past few months Israel has been exercising not only with us but other partner nations in this region,” Fifth Fleet spokesperson Tim Hawkins told reporters on Wednesday.

In its seventh year, IMX 22 began on Monday from the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain and will cover the Arabian Gulf, Arabian Sea, Gulf of Oman, Red Sea and North Indian Ocean.