Houthi rebels in Yemen have escalated their maritime attacks in the strategically vital Red Sea. Both their links to Iran, and the decision to target key shipping routes raises the risks for international escalation.
CAIRO — Keep your eye on Yemen. The Houthi rebel group from the war-torn Gulf nation has not attracted the same attention over the past two months as the Lebanese militants of Hezbollah, considered the most immediate risk of setting the spark that could ignite the Hamas-Israel war beyond Gaza.
Yet over the past 48 hours, a major Houthi attack on seaborne targets was launched with ballistic missiles and explosive-landed drones. The U.S. said one of its warships in the area shot down three drones in self-defense during the hours-long assault on the vessels, including the Bahamas-flagged bulk carrier Unity Explorer and the Panamanian-flagged bulk carriers Number 9 and Sophie II.
The Houthis claimed the attack in a statement read by their military spokesman, saying the targeted vessels have links with Israel, a claim Israel’s military denied.
“The Yemeni armed forces continue to prevent Israeli ships from navigating the Red Sea (and Gulf of Aden) until the Israeli aggression against our steadfast brothers in the Gaza Strip stops,” Brig. Gen. Yahya Saree said in the statement.
The U.S. military’s Central Command said in a statement that the attacks put at risk the lives of international crews working on the ships. And more broadly, CENTCOM warned that “these attacks represent a direct threat to international commerce and maritime security.”
The Houthis, a Shia religious movement, seized Yemen's capital of Sanaa in 2014 and forced the internationally recognized government to flee to the south then to exile in Saudi Arabia.
The Houthi takeover prompted a civil war that then developed into a proxy war in 2015 between Saudi Arabia and Iran, after the first formed a military coalition to try to restore the internationally recognized government to power.
High stakes in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait
The rebels control much of Yemen’s western coast overlocking a large stretch of Red Sea, as well as Bab el-Mandeb Strait. Over the past years, they launched attacks on vessels linked to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, pillars of the military coalition fighting against the Houthis since 2015.
It's a real and present threat to international commerce with direct effects on the world economy.
The Suez Canal, the SUMED pipeline, and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait are strategic routes for Persian Gulf oil and natural gas shipments to Europe and North America. Total oil shipments via these routes accounted for about 12% of total seaborne-traded oil in the first half of 2023, and liquefied natural gas (LNG) shipments accounted for about 8% of worldwide LNG trade, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The rising pressure on the global shipping industry passing through the Red Sea and the narrow Bael el-Mandeb Strait, one of the world’s busiest waterways, has become a real and present threat to international commerce that could have direct effects on the world economy.
Comments by shipping companies and insurance representatives suggest the threat could result in longer transit times to assure vessel safety, as well as higher insurance premiums charged for shipping in the region, the center said in a brief on Friday, two days before the latest attack.
Last month, major global shipping associations published joint security guidance applicable to navigating in the Southern Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. The guidance said that the maritime threat from the Houthi forces is greater in the vicinity of the Yemeni Red Sea coastline, where they are occasionally present.
Last week the Zim shipping company announced on Tuesday that it was taking operational precautions, while changing its shipping routes from the east to Israel.
Satellite image of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait
In a customer advisory, the company said that the changes stem from the safety risk facing vessels in the Arabian Sea and the Red Sea, and that these are, at least for now, temporary changes.
These changes may extend the sailing times of its ships and even cause disruptions and delays in the delivery of goods, the company said.
Mouin Rabbani, a Dutch-Palestinian Middle East analyst specializing in the Arab Israeli conflict, said the global shipping companies, which often operate on tight profit margins, are sensitive to such attacks even if it didn't cause significant material damage.
The Houthis’ objective is to impose escalating costs on not only Israel but also “the sponsors and enablers of the Gaza genocide,” he wrote on X social media platform, formerly known as Twitter.
They just need to “instill confidence in the global shipping industry that regular attacks on its assets will continue until Israel is called to a halt” its war in Gaza, he said.
“They (shipping companies) are not going to keep using Bab Al-Mandab until the first ship is sunk to the bottom of the Red Sea,” he said.
The head of security at Bimco, which represents global shipowners, told The Financial Times that “more military resources” needed to be deployed to protect the seas. “When you see three ships attacked [on the same day] in the same geographic area that implies we are a bit short of resources,” Bimco’s Jacob Larsen said.
Tehran war games
Most of the international community is convinced that behind such a high-stakes game is the regime of Iran, which has long been the Houthis main sponsor.
The spider controlling their actions is Iran
Though Iran has repeatedly denied involvement in attacks by its proxies on Israel or the U.S. interests in the region, there is a global consensus that Tehan is at least enabling such attacks, most recently the Houthi assault in Bab el-Mandeb.
Simon Henderson, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote in an op-ed Monday that such a brazen attack was not carried out alone.
“It is becoming increasingly difficult not to conclude, the spider controlling the actions of the Houthis — as well as Hezbollah in Lebanon and attacks on U.S. forces in Syria and Iraq — is Iran,” he said.
Whether it’s Yemeni rebels trying to dynamite global trade in the Red Sea or Lebanese militia launching missiles into Israel, Iran will have a decisive hand in deciding whether the war in Gaza stays in Gaza.
As we can presume from their rapid denials of responsibility, there are many good reasons for Tehran officials to want to avoid a frontal challenge with Israel or the U.S. Yet the longer Israel’s devastating assault continues, the more likely it becomes that the war spreads: whether by design, or by accident.