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Will Houthi-Israel tensions threaten Red Sea security?

Will Houthi-Israel tensions threaten security in Yemen and the Red Sea?
7 min read
22 November, 2023
Analysis: After demonstrating that their advanced missile and drone technology can reach Israel, the Houthis have expanded their focus to the Red Sea.

Yemen has captured global attention after the country’s Houthi rebels began launching ballistic missiles and drones at Israel in late October.

Marking a notable shift in their capabilities, Houthi gunmen on Sunday executed a sophisticated operation in the Red Sea where they descended from a helicopter and, aided by fast boats, successfully hijacked a cargo ship and directed it to Yemen’s Hodeida port.

This ship, named Galaxy Leader, is associated with a British company partly owned by Abraham Ungar, one of Israel's richest individuals.

As predicted in October, the Houthis, who are Yemen’s most powerful faction, have now expanded their focus to the Red Sea, after demonstrating that their advanced missile and drone technology can reach southern Israeli cities like Eilat.

After threatening to strike Israel and American assets in response to the Gaza offensive, the Houthis vowed last week to target Israeli ships in the Red Sea.

"Our eyes are open to constant monitoring and searching for any Israeli ship," leader Abdul-Malik al-Houthi said in a speech broadcast by the group’s Al-Masirah TV station.

Red Sea security

The Houthis’ latest move has raised concerns about potential disruptions in a vital global trade route, through which around 14 percent of global trade passes, particularly hydrocarbons.

The Red Sea is also one of the world’s most heavily guarded trade corridors, with the US, Britain, France, Italy, China, Japan, and Saudi Arabia having a military presence in Djibouti, which is a mere 30km from south Yemen.

In light of the Houthis' declared intent to target ships, heightened security measures are likely to be implemented to prevent future ship hijackings, particularly those involving Israeli vessels. Last week, a US Navy ship shot down a Houthi drone headed in its direction, while Saudi Arabia reportedly intercepted a missile en route to Israel, revealing Riyadh’s shared regional security concerns with the US.

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Yet the Houthis' newfound ability to target ships in the Red Sea is a striking example of the blowback of Yemen's war, and how the group’s threat to the US-led regional order has increased. This is despite the US backing and selling arms to the Saudi-led coalition, with the hope of maintaining security in the Red Sea and Arabian Peninsula.

And of further concern is the potential escalation of violence in Yemen, drawing the country deeper into what is often perceived as a proxy war between Israel and Iran. Indeed, the Houthis' significant support from Iran and its Lebanese partner Hezbollah suggests at least some degree of coordinated efforts against Israel, especially amid ongoing cross-border skirmishes between Hezbollah and the Israeli army.

Yet their individual attacks on Israel also aim to rally local support and popularity as they consolidate control over northern Yemen.

This handout screen grab captured from a video shows Yemen's Houthi fighters taking over the Galaxy Leader Cargo in the Red Sea coast off Hodeida, on 20 November 2023 in the Red Sea, Yemen. [Getty]

Yemen: A frozen conflict?

Yemen, the poorest Arab country, has suffered a devastating war since September 2014, when the Houthis seized the capital Sana’a and displaced the Saudi-backed post-Arab Spring government, prompting the Saudi Arabia-led coalition's military intervention in March 2015.

The United Nations reported that from 2015 to 2022, the war had killed around 377,000 people, with most deaths coming from indirect causes like food shortages and inadequate healthcare, rather than from war.

Currently, an alarming two-thirds of the Yemeni population, approximately 21.6 million people, are in urgent need of aid, with 80 percent of the population depending on aid to survive. Famine still looms over five million individuals, and a dire cholera epidemic has affected over a million.

While there has been waning focus on Yemen in recent years, and decreased attention amid the conflict in Ukraine and now the war in Gaza, the US has continued some diplomatic engagements.

On 13 November, US envoy to Yemen Tim Lenderking travelled to the Gulf to engage with partners from Yemen’s internationally recognised government, and Saudi, Emirati, and Omani partners.

According to the US Department of State, the talks aimed to “discuss the necessary steps to secure a durable ceasefire and launch an inclusive, political process led by the UN, while ensuring continued efforts to ease the economic crisis and suffering of Yemenis”.

Beyond keeping communications open with America’s partners, the latest round of talks hasn’t dented the status quo of Yemen’s “frozen conflict,” with the Houthis gradually becoming the de-facto rulers of north Yemen.

For now, Yemen’s war has reached a stalemate and violence has mostly lulled after UN-brokered ceasefires and efforts to achieve a new government. Prior to the latest war in Gaza, there was optimism in Yemen’s peace talks after a Houthi delegation visited Riyadh in September, the first official visit from the group, while Saudi and Omani envoys met Houthi leaders in Sana’a in April.

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Yet there’s been no official truce or peace treaty, rather, Yemen is stuck in a fragile limbo that risks breeding long-term instability and causing the humanitarian crisis to worsen.

The Houthis' determined push to seize Marib from Yemeni government forces since February 2021 has floundered, despite making early gains. While expending many resources into this goal, Marib remains elusive after the Houthis were pushed back by UAE-backed militias in January 2022. Meanwhile, Yemen's government is treading water, struggling to assert its influence.

The Southern Transitional Council (STC) and allied militias, owing to the United Arab Emirates's backing during the war, have now formed a key force across the south. Yet despite their quest to obtain an independent South Yemen, they've reportedly been on the receiving end of sporadic attacks from Al Qaeda's Yemen branch, including a deadly strike in September that killed five STC fighters.

Moreover, Human Rights Watch recently warned that the south is suffering electricity and water outages, while security forces have allegedly shot at protestors in Aden.

It’s also no secret that Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) has for some time wanted out of a war that he himself first instigated.

Ultimately, the ambitious crown prince and de facto Saudi ruler wants to focus on the Kingdom’s economic transformation, turning it into a regional powerhouse. To achieve this, a peaceful southern border and de-escalation with Iran is an essential prerequisite.

A Houthi military parade in Yemen. The group has consolidated power in the north of the country. [Getty]

De-escalation or confrontation?

Seeking to play it safe, however, Riyadh has sought extra protection under the US-led security umbrella, which may seem preferable after the US deployed naval assets to the Red Sea as the Israel-Gaza war erupted. This also remains true for the UAE, which is a major party in Yemen’s war. This may also trigger prompts from Washington to push for a more de-escalatory stance.

While it may pursue de-escalation, Washington could also be on guard over further Houthi operations, which could further complicate the country’s peace process. Following the cargo ship incident, Washington has mulled re-designating the Houthis a terrorist group, which may harm past trust-building measures from peace efforts.

In June, the White House announced it was still running a minor military presence in Yemen. Although the report said the small force was aimed at countering Al Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) in Yemen, further details, including numbers, were kept a secret.

Unlike Iran’s allies in Syria and Iraq, the Houthis have largely avoided targeting American assets, despite the fact some are closer to Yemen, such as Washington’s base in Djibouti, showing the rebels are trying to avoid eliciting harsher actions from Washington.

As for Israel, despite being a target of Houthi strikes, it has focused more on its military and political objectives in Gaza, as well as on skirmishes with Hezbollah, which poses a more immediate security threat.

Yet as Houthi attacks continue, an eventual Israeli retaliation, or efforts to undermine the group, shouldn’t necessarily be ruled out, particularly if the Houthis are able to cause disruptions to Israel. This may also depend on how much longer Israel’s war on Gaza continues.

Unless the situation further escalates and spirals out of control, Washington and Riyadh may pursue further de-escalation with the Houthis to ensure that the Red Sea is not disrupted. This would lead to an extra focus on negotiations, which may in turn bolster the Houthis as a political entity in Yemen.

However, if trust further breaks down, Yemen may endure the absence of a political solution, which will prolong its already dire security and humanitarian situation.

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a journalist and researcher who focuses on conflict, geopolitics, and humanitarian issues in the Middle East and North Africa.

Follow him on Twitter: @jfentonharvey