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UAE and Iran engage in maritime skirmish

“This is the Middle East and we will do what we need to do.”

-Sheikh Mohd. bin Zayed Al Nahyan

On Monday, Iran seized a UAE-flagged fishing boat and detained its crew. The same day, the United Arab Emirates’ coastguard allegedly killed two Iranian fishermen.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry announced on Monday that an Emirati ship was seized by their border guards and its crew was detained for illegally entering Iran’s territorial waters. UAE guards shot dead two Iranian fishermen, and also seized their boat.

The next day, Iran summoned the UAE charge d’affaires in Tehran and lodged a strong protest against UAE’s actions, demanding the return of the seized boat along with the bodies of the two fishermen. In response, UAE expressed regret for the incident and announced its readiness to compensate them.

Maritime skirmishes such as these are quite common between UAE and Iran as the they strive to dominate the waters around the strategically important Strait of Hormuz. This week's incident might be an indication of a tit-for-tat strategy adopted by both the countries.

Each country's security establishment may view such low-intensity displays of aggression through territorial incursions by fishing vessels as having the potential to alter status quo and entrench dominance in the region. Even a minor row blowing up into a devastating and bloody conflict remains the greatest risk in the Middle East!

However, this week’s incident assumes significance as it comes days after the UAE signed a historic agreement with Israel to establish full diplomatic ties. Iran has strongly condemned this deal, terming it a betrayal by UAE.

On Sunday, a day before the skirmish over fishing vessels, UAE had even summoned the Iranian charge d’affaires to protest against the anti-UAE rhetoric emerging from Iran. But, the region is no stranger to war rhetoric.

Israel views Iran as an existential threat because the latter regularly calls for Israel’s “annihilation” or destruction. This regional power dynamics has grouped Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel in an informal coalition against Iran and its allies.

UAE and its ally, Saudi Arabia, are engaged in a proxy war with Iran, stretching from Syria to Yemen. Saudi Arabia and Iran are also scrambling to claim leadership of the Islamic World.

The risk of a full-blown war has only increased following American withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal, last year’s attack on Saudi oil facilities which was allegedly done by Iran, the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, and growing Arab engagement with Israel. Middle Eastern politics displays the perils of underinvesting in peace while overloading on arms. But, the region’s trajectory in the coming days will be a true test of deft diplomacy.

Reporter- Shreyas Datar

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