Houthi Aggression in the Red Sea


Photo source: Foreign Policy

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

Due to a wave of Houthi missile attacks in Red Sea, shipping companies are departing it in droves. In 2023, the Iran-backed Yemeni group has launched at least 100 missiles and drone attacks against a dozen ships in the Red Sea, according to US officials. They threatened to target all vessels heading toward Israel, whether they are Israeli-owned or operated. 

To avoid suffering the same fate, major energy and shipping companies, including BP and Maersk, have halted their operations there. It has rattled the energy markets by driving up global oil prices and soon everything else. The Red Sea is what connects Asia to Europe, in terms of cargo ships, so disruptions are felt around the world.

The Houthi attacks ‘have created worries for global freight markets, for the flows of energy commodities, other commodities, goods,’ said Richard Bronze, the head of geopolitics at Energy Aspects, a research firm, to Foreign Policy. ‘It’s a really critical shipping route, so any disruption risks adding delays and costs, which have a sort of knock-on effect in many corners of the global economy.’

Washington is reportedly pondering on striking the Houthi base in Yemen, just days after announcing a multinational task force to safeguard navigation in the Red Sea. But the pledge did little to deter the Houthis, who instead vowed to ramp up their attacks and target US warships if Washington executed attacks in Yemen.

Political experts say the Houthis’ Red Sea attacks are part of a bid to shore up domestic support and strengthen the group’s regional standing, while the Houthis’ popularity has only grown since they began waging these attacks. As part of Iran’s ‘Axis of Resistance,’ the Houthis have vowed to attack ships transiting the Red Sea until Israel ends its bombardment of Gaza. They’re Iran’s JV team, but they can make a splash at times.

Washington, which currently has at least three destroyers stationed by the Red Sea, has shot down countless Houthi drones and intercepted missiles launched at transiting ships. To ensure freedom of navigation, Washington also announced in December 2023 that it mobilised ten other countries to form a new task force called Operation Prosperity Guardian.

The operation is set to include Bahrain, Canada, France, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Seychelles, Spain, and the United Kingdom. US officials said although details are still murky and there remains ongoing confusion about what it will look like. Italy, for example, has said it is sending a frigate to the Red Sea under its long-standing plans, not as part of Operation Prosperity Guardian, as per inputs by Reuters. 

According to the Associated Press, several other countries also agreed to take part in the task force but preferred to remain anonymous. It is because many Arab countries don’t want to be seen as defending Israel just now. That underlines how tricky it’s been to assemble this coalition and it perhaps also shows the limited enthusiasm of many countries for being too visible in confronting this threat and in standing sort of shoulder to shoulder with the US on this issue.

Apparently undeterred, the Houthis have vowed to continue the fight. That could mean continued uncertainty for energy and shipping companies for some time, many of which are waiting for more robust reassurances and greater stability until they feel comfortable resuming operations in the Red Sea.

More fireworks could soon come. 
The United States could also snap back previously levied sanctions on key Houthi figures as a dissuasive measure, but Saudi Arabia isn’t sold on that idea, since Riyadh is trying to negotiate an end to the yearslong quagmire in Yemen and worries that heavy-handed US tactics could complicate its withdrawal.

After years of involvement in the Yemen war, Riyadh wants out. Saudi Arabia has been working to extricate itself from that war and to make peace with both Tehran—the two powers normalised relations in March 2023—and with the Houthis as well.

As Saudi Arabia and the Houthis inch closer to securing a peace agreement, experts say Riyadh has adopted a cautious approach, wary of taking any steps that could jeopardise its fragile detente with Tehran or derail peace talks. But continued escalations in the Red Sea could throw a wrench in Riyadh’s plans.

If the US were to attack targets in Yemen, not only could it threaten the truce that Saudi Arabia has struck with the Houthis, but it could interfere with that detente between Iran and the kingdom. And that could threaten what is still one of the world’s biggest oil producers and exporters at a time when crude oil is already trading north of $70 a barrel. If that were to happen then risks to production could come back, and that would change the picture, potentially adding more upside risk to the crude prices.


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