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How the Houthis threaten regional security and global trade

Posted on Posted in Analyses, EU & NATO, Middle East, Strategy & Defence


By Athanasios Papadopoulos, Analyst KEDISA




Since mid-November 2023, the Houthi militia (also known as Ansar Allah), which is widely considered Iran’s proxy in Yemen, has been carrying out a disruptive campaign targeting maritime traffic through the Bab al-Mandab strait. This chokepoint connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. The Houthi strikes have put the traffic through the Suez Canal at risk, leading several prominent shipping companies to suspend their operations in the region.

The Houthis are a rebel movement controlling one-third of Yemen’s territory and two-thirds of its population. They overthrew the Yemeni government in 2014 and command around 20,000 fighters. The Houthis’ government, based in the capital of Sanaa, is only recognized by Iran. Human rights observers consider their governance repressive due to their strict interpretation of Islamic law and local caste-based traditions. Iran’s support has given the Houthis access to advanced weaponry, including missiles and drones, helping them maintain their military superiority.

The recent attacks by the Houthis are a result of the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Initially, the Houthis claimed that their attacks were in support of Hamas and targeted Israeli and Israel-bound commercial ships. However, the group has since targeted a wider range of merchant tankers. In response, major firms have announced that they will halt or redirect shipping routes to avoid the Red Sea region. Seven out of the ten biggest shipping companies, including Maersk and BP, have decided to stop using this particular shipping corridor. Instead, they will use a new route that goes south through the Indian Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, and then up the western coast of Africa. This new route could add up to two weeks to shipping times and increase transportation costs by more than $1 million. As a result, it’s possible that fuel prices and the availability of goods could also be affected.

The Red Sea is a vital link between Asia and Europe for cargo ships, and any disruption in this region can significantly impact global trade. Situated between Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Sudan, the Red Sea serves as a gateway to the Suez Canal, which is one of the world’s major trade routes. It oversees approximately 12 percent of the world’s trade and nearly one-third of global container traffic. As many as 19,000 ships cross through the Suez Canal each year, making it a critical pressure point in the energy and commodity trade. Avoiding the Red Sea means abandoning one of the most common global shipping routes from Asia to Europe. Indeed, 40 percent of Asia-Europe trade normally transits the sea. Ships shunning the Red Sea will have to instead choose the costlier route and sail around Africa. Still, hundreds of commercial ships have chosen the longer route since November. On the other hand, insurance premiums for ships using the Red Sea have skyrocketed nearly tenfold since the attacks began.

Iran has played a decisive role in providing Houthi rebels in Yemen with smuggled weapons and expertise, which has allowed the rebels to project power into the Red Sea and Bab al-Mandab Strait. Over the past few years, Houthi rebels have acquired a diverse range of anti-ship weaponry, including cruise and ballistic missiles. They have recently used these weapons to threaten shipping in the Red Sea. Iran has been the primary source of anti-ship missile technology for the Houthis, except for a few outdated Soviet-era systems and slightly less antiquated Chinese designs. Uninhabited aerial vehicles (UAVs), speedboats, and anti-ship missiles have become the group’s weapons of choice in their ongoing campaign against shipping in the Red Sea.

After the Houthis launched their attacks, the Biden administration gave them 30 days’ warning to back off in the Red Sea and give diplomacy a chance before redesignating them as Specially Designated Global Terrorists. The United States has formed a coalition named Operation Prosperity Guardian, which comprises 23 countries. The main objective of this coalition is to safeguard shipping in the Red Sea from missile and drone attacks. The successful defense will ensure the freedom of navigation and discourage the Houthis from carrying out further attacks. The coalition was formed to safeguard shipping vessels and trade routes across the world. However, it faced several challenges during its creation and operation. Some countries have been reluctant to join the task force publicly due to their diplomatic relations and business ties with Iran. This situation highlights the need for nations to balance their national interests with their participation in collective security efforts.

On January 11th and 12th, the US and UK conducted air strikes on Yemen. These strikes were in response to the Houthis’ refusal to end their attacks despite calls from the international community, including a formal letter from the UK. However, the strikes are mostly symbolic and unlikely to put an end to the Houthis’ hostile activities in the region. Rather, they may provoke further attacks and raise the risk of regional conflict, including Iran. The Houthis have expressed their desire for war with the United States, and these strikes could even reignite Yemen’s civil war. The situation in the Red Sea is complex and fraught with difficult choices.

The Houthis’ campaign against global commerce in the Red Sea has dramatic geopolitical dynamics. China is heavily dependent on oil imports and the Suez Canal is an important trade route for the country. Beijing has invested in Egyptian and Saudi ports on the Red Sea and should be concerned about the potential collapse of shipping lanes through the Red Sea. Although China has pledged to help de-escalate tensions, it is benefiting from the ongoing crisis in many ways, as it has successfully built closer ties with Iran and other Persian Gulf countries by presenting itself as a leader of the Global South and has indicated its support for the Palestinian cause. Participating in the US-led coalition could undermine China’s ambitions to present itself as a leader of the Global South.

The European Union launched its own naval operation in the northwest Indian Ocean on February 19. The mission, called EUNAVFOR Aspides, has initial contributions from seven member states: Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, and Spain. Already, four multipurpose frigates are part of the mission: one each from France, Germany, Italy, and Greece. It is headquartered in Greece, while Italy is in charge of its operations. With the shipping industry growing impatient and the US and UK strikes not being able to halt the attacks from the Houthis, the EU had to deliver. In launching Aspides, the EU seems intent on asserting European agency, with its own assets and rules of engagement, in line with its own interests rooted in confidence-building with regional states. The EU’s response to the current crisis could have come sooner, but the new operation will provide an impetus to step up engagement, especially given the large operation area covering the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Oman, and the Gulf. If Europeans want to be taken seriously and have a positive impact, they must articulate a clear vision for the basis of their future diplomatic and security initiatives, in addition to investing in adequate means to implement their initiatives.

Global trade has been falling since December 2023 as Houthi attacks on merchant ships in the Red Sea disrupted operations. Beyond the concerns around shipping safety, worries have also been raised about potential supply chain disruptions similar to those witnessed during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Recent attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea have challenged the role of the United States in safeguarding commerce in the global commons. Maritime choke point disruptions have worldwide consequences due to the global setting of oil prices. The United States has a deep interest in freedom of navigation. The Suez Canal is increasingly used for Middle East-to-Europe flows of energy, as well as Russia-to-India shipments especially after the Russian Invasion of Ukraine, with about 8.8 million barrels per day of oil and oil products utilizing the Suez transit in the first half of 2023. Taking all of this into consideration, it is evident how a non-state actor with a relatively small military capability can inflict such harm to global trade while directly threatening the Global North’s economic and commercial interests. With the US elections approaching, it appears that the only viable answer for the Biden administration and the West is a confrontation with the Houthis. Nonetheless, a different approach to the Gaza ongoing disaster might be more beneficial.



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