What do Houthi attacks in the Red Sea mean for global trade?
While the war in Gaza between Israel and Hamas may not lead to the opening of a new military front in Yemen, Red Sea attacks by the Houthi group have already triggered a disruption to global trade.
The Iran-backed movement has been playing a deterrent role since Israel launched its war on the Gaza Strip - killing more than 22,000 Palestinians - following the Hamas attack that killed around 1,200 Israeli civilians and soldiers on 7 October.
On the official basis of acting in “solidarity with Palestinian people,” the Houthis tried to target Israel with their missile and drone arsenal during the initial phase of the conflict in Gaza, but without significant military outcomes.
However, the Houthis shifted their approach to the Gaza war on 17 November when it seized the Israeli-linked cargo vessel, the Galaxy Leader, and its 25 international crew members at the entrance to the Red Sea.
"Houthi attacks have primarily targeted the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a critical chokepoint in the Red Sea through which about 10% of global crude oil and petroleum products transit"
Houthi militants have carried out over 100 drone and missile attacks against commercial ships in the Red Sea over recent weeks. As a result, over 100 cargo ships chose to reroute away from the Suez Canal to evade potential Houthi threats, according to logistics company Kuehne+Nagel.
While the Houthi's successive targets were initially linked to Israel, later targets had minimal or nonexistent connections to Israel.
Attacks on commercial ships in the subsequent weeks prompted the world's largest shipping companies, such as A.P. Moller-Maersk A/S, Hapag-Lloyd AG, CMA CGM, Maersk, MSC, and the energy giant BP, to either pause activities in the Red Sea or reroute their cargo ships.
Houthi attacks have primarily targeted the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a critical chokepoint in the Red Sea through which about 10% of global crude oil and petroleum products transit.
The Red Sea also serves as the primary route to the Suez Canal, connecting major European consumers with significant suppliers in Asia. The canal facilitates about 12% of global trade, accounting for over $1 trillion worth of goods annually.
Houthi attacks have heightened risks for vessels approaching the Suez Canal, and their attempts to disrupt global supply chains are already yielding initial impacts.
Marco Forgione, Director General at The Institute of Export & International Trade, told The New Arab that Houthi attacks on commercial ships have significantly increased fuel costs, impacting Egypt's revenue from shipping tolls.
This surge in fuel prices, influenced by a de facto blockade, affects about 10% of global oil and 8% of liquefied natural gas (LNG) transits through key routes like Suez, crucial for Europe's winter energy needs as European Union (EU) states have increased their imports following Ukraine-related sanctions on Russia's oil industry.
"As Europe faces rising prices during its coldest season and looks to diversify fuel due to Russian sanctions, disruptions at Suez could further strain supplies. Additionally, about 30% of global container shipping passes through Suez, affecting various goods from raw materials like iron ore and copper to foodstuffs,” Forgione said.
“Delays from potential diversions, such as a 3,500 nautical mile detour via Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, lead to extended shipment times, disrupting supply chains, causing port congestion, and escalating costs across sectors."
Opting for longer routes around the Cape of Good Hope will result in extended lead times, delays in previously scheduled deliveries, and additional expenses. These added costs, encompassing port fees, bunker charges, and other potential fees, will ultimately be transferred to consumers.
"Despite the announcement of the US-led Prosperity Guardian Operation, it's unlikely to deter Houthi attacks, given their previous actions, even with a similar naval presence"
Forgione also highlighted that doubled insurance costs and soaring demand for security services have raised prices, affecting goods like fresh produce from East Africa, wines from Australia and New Zealand, and seafood from Southeast Asia. These disruptions push companies towards alternatives like airfreight or the China-Europe route, but they face other obstacles, such as the Panama Canal's diminished capacity from past droughts.
To counter Houthi activities in the Red Sea, the United States announced the formation of Operation Prosperity Guardian on 18 December, a multinational security initiative that involves NATO members and several anonymous governments under the umbrella of the Combined Maritime Forces's Combined Task Force (CTF) 153, established in 2022 to enhance maritime security in the Red Sea, Bab el-Mandeb, and Gulf of Aden.
However, Eleonora Ardemagni, a senior associate research fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI) specialising in Yemen and Gulf monarchies, says the impact of such a maritime force could be limited.
"While the Houthis receive support from Iran in terms of weapons, training, and intelligence, their capability to fully block the Southern Red Sea and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait remains questionable,” she told The New Arab.
“Despite the announcement of the US-led Prosperity Guardian Operation, it's unlikely to deter Houthi attacks, given their previous actions, even with a similar naval presence."
The CTF 153 was launched to target arms smuggling in the waters around Yemen but had little effect. Following the Pentagon's announcement, some shipping companies resumed Red Sea operations under the protection of the US-led initiative.
But the reassurance didn’t last long, as the Houthis continued military attacks in the Red Sea. The latest happened on 30 December, with the US Central Command confirming that the crew aboard the USS Gravely destroyer intercepted two Houthi anti-ship ballistic missiles aimed at the Singapore-flagged Maersk Hangzhou in the Southern Red Sea following an earlier missile strike on the vessel.
The day after, four small boats attacked the Maersk Hangzhou using small arms, with the Houthis attempting to board the ship. In response to the second distress call, both the USS Gravely and helicopters from the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower aircraft carrier arrived on the scene, issuing verbal warnings to the attackers.
However, upon receiving fire from the Houthis, US Navy helicopters sank three of the four boats. The Houthi faction confirmed the loss of 10 of their members. Meanwhile, the Tasnim news agency reported that Iran deployed its Alborz destroyer in the Red Sea, passing through the Bab-el-Mandeb strait amid soaring tensions.
Forgione explained that offering escort services in the narrow 20-mile straits presents challenges, especially given the cost disparity between the inexpensive Houthi drones and the high-cost munitions required to intercept them.
"The Houthis have expressed their intent to persist with attacks, raising concerns about the US-led operation's objectives and its potential to achieve lasting success without addressing the root source of the drone attacks in Yemen," he said.
"While significantly armed and trained by Iran, the Houthis operate with relative autonomy"
The Houthis’ aim of disrupting global trade in the Red Sea extends beyond deterring Israeli military operations in Gaza. Ardemagni suggests three motivations behind their military strategy in the Red Sea.
"The Houthi's strategy in the Red Sea aims to bolster negotiating leverage with Saudi Arabia for better concessions on a Yemen ceasefire. They also aim to gain more support from Yemen's population, diverting attention from political failures, including welfare service absences and salary issues. Additionally, the Houthis want to enhance their regional profile in Middle Eastern dynamics," she said.
In political terms, Ardemagni argues that the escalation in the Red Sea threatens Yemen's 2022 truce, leading to ongoing violence and sidelining the recognised government and presidential council from talks with the Houthis and Saudi Arabia, despite the recent UN announcement that warring parties have committed to a set of measures to implement a nationwide ceasefire.
This exclusion fuels internal Yemeni tensions, with the Saudi-backed government opposing a US-led coalition and the United Arab Emirates-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC) being more receptive, reflecting the UAE's nuanced stance on Israel, further complicating regional dynamics.
"The Red Sea crisis pushes the US to reconsider its Yemen policy since Washington has traditionally seen Yemen through the prism of countering AQAP [Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] while underestimating the regional and global threat coming from the Houthis' consolidation in the northwest," she said.
While significantly armed and trained by Iran, the Houthis operate with relative autonomy, not solely dictated by Tehran. Although they share common goals with Iran regarding countering Israel and opposing a US presence in the region, Ardemagni explained that it's crucial not to overstate Iran's influence on Houthi political decisions.
Despite benefiting from the alliance, the Houthis maintain distinct political objectives focused on controlling and gaining autonomy in northern Yemen, emphasising their unique identity compared to groups like Hezbollah.
Therefore, while their objectives align on certain issues, the Houthis' primary political priorities should be viewed within their domestic context.
Dario Sabaghi is a freelance journalist interested in human rights.
Follow him on Twitter: @DarioSabaghi