A massive multinational naval exercise kicked off this week in Manama, the capital of Bahrain. With 50 partner countries and ships from the US 5th Fleet, the area of operations will include all strategic waterways from the Persian Gulf to the Suez Canal, with ships passing through the Bab el-Mandeb and Straits of Hormuz – the site of recent tensions with Iran.The International Maritime Exercise – dubbed IMX 19, named after the year it takes place – is an annual event that has taken place since 2013.US Vice Admiral Jim Malloy, commander of US Naval Forces for Central Command, said it is the most dynamic and largest exercise of its kind to date, as 20 additional countries are participating than in previous years.The drill intends to showcase freedom of navigation and commerce in these strategic seas, which is important because the tensions in the Gulf could have led to concerns. Ships near the Gulf of Oman and a US drone were attacked in May and June. In July, the UK seized an Iranian ship, leading to increased tension. Iranian boats and drones harassed ships, and in October, an Iranian ship was allegedly struck by an object. In addition, a drone and cruise missile raid hit Saudi oil facilities in September.The large maritime drill comes after another joint operation called Eager Lion in Jordan, which demonstrates that the US and partner nations are still doing major combined operations, even amid the Syrian crisis and other controversies in the region. US CENTCOM is stoked about this because the withdrawal from Syria has brought questions about CENTCOM’s role in the region. US Defense Secretary Mark Esper arrived in Saudi Arabia last night. The 5th Fleet operations for the US includes some 2.5 million square miles, CENTCOM says, and it borders around 20 countries. This is where a large amount of the world’s oil flows, so it is essential and strategic.In June, the USS Abraham Lincoln arrived in the Gulf, along with 70 aircraft and other naval units, which was considered a “message” to Tehran amid tensions. The USS Kearsarge and its Amphibious Ready Group was also in the Gulf at that time. It is now in the Atlantic Ocean. The Abraham Lincoln and its Carrier Strike Group, dubbed CVN 72, is in the 5th Fleet’s area of operations.Iran is watching the IMX closely, worried about its own naval standing. It highlighted the naval drill on the state-owned Press TV. It has sought to flex its own naval power muscles this year, showcasing new submarines, drones and other equipment. Israel took part in a Working Group on Maritime and Aviation Security in Bahrain this week as well, although that event seemed unconnected to the IMX drill.