In reaction to the Israel-Hamas confrontation in Gaza, which has greatly expanded throughout the area, the Houthi movement has begun attacking ships in the Red Sea. In response, air and naval operations against Houthi military targets in Yemen were initiated by the US and UK on January 12, 2024.
Who are the Houthis?
First and foremost, the Houthi movement, also known as Ansar Allah, is a Shia Islamist political and military organization that has been active in Yemen since the 1990s and is allied with Iran. Since 2014, the Houthis have ruled over Yemen’s most populous region, which includes Sana’a, the capital. It began as a movement to voice complaints about the Yemeni administration. Thus, the Yemen state is not one Yemen state; you have the Houthi on the one hand, and a non-nationally recognized government on the other hand. The Houthis rebels, in addition, have also been fighting against the coalition commanded by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (supporters of the Yemeni government).
What did they do?
Following the devastating Israeli response in Gaza after the October 7th attack on Israel in 2023, the Houthis have been engaging in a series of actions purportedly intended to put pressure on Israel to stop its offensive on Gaza.
In solidarity with Hamas, the militant Houthis have begun assaulting cargo ships in the Red Sea (the only route to the Suez Canal) that are associated with Israel. They have attempted to board and take control of ships in addition to carrying out many missile attacks. Drones and rockets are also being used against foreign-owned ships that are passing through the Bab al-Mandab strait, which divides Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula from Eritrea and Djibouti on the African side.
Why the route is so crucial? How may their attacks impact commerce between countries?
One of the most important trade routes in the world, the Suez Canal is today almost unusable for many maritime firms due to the Houthis’ attacks on the Red Sea. Being a vital conduit, the canal connects the Red Sea at Suez with the Mediterranean Sea at Port Said.
Around 12% of world commerce and 30% of world container traffic pass through Suez annually, carrying more than $1 trillion worth of commodities. The largest shipping firms in the world, however, are currently making thousands of miles-long detours to avoid the southernmost tip of Africa, the Cape of Good Hope. Still, the trip is somewhat longer, at about 16,000 kilometres (10,000 miles), to travel this way. The higher fuel usage, worker costs, and maintenance expenses make it more costly as well.
The Suez Canal is also a crucial channel for the transfer of gas and oil. Approximately 9.2 million barrels of oil passed through the canal per day in the first half of 2023. The attack’s greatest effects, then, were on oil prices and the rise in the cost of war risk insurance.
How have the UK and US responded to it?
To assist these Houthi militants in retaliating against their attacks, the US and other Western warships have reacted to many distress calls from ships in the Red Sea. However, a few shipping firms were hesitant to resume using the route.
The US Central Command said on January 13 that the US and UK troops had attacked the Houthi radar installation in Yemen with airstrikes, resulting in the deaths of five of its members and the injuries of six more.
During a recent speech, President Biden declared that he would “not hesitate to direct further measures to protect our people and the free flow of international commerce.” Even the strikes have been defended by Rishi Sunak as a means of reestablishing regional peace and self-defence.
To put it briefly, I argue that as long as Israelis are engaged in what is considered to be genocide in Palestine, the Houthis will continue to engage in a variety of acts purportedly intended to force Israel to cease its attack on Gaza. As a result, this might reduce friction and jeopardise regional peace.
Image: NITIKA Parmar on flickr