Houthi Attacks on Shipping Routes: Challenges and Consequences

Houthi Attacks on Shipping Routes: Challenges and Consequences
Photo by 652234 via Pixabay


Andrej Confalonieri

Middle East and Human Rights Researcher

Global Human Rights Defence

About a month ago, I discussed the Houthis, a rebel group in Yemen rooted in the Zaydi sect of Shi’ite Islam, which has been embroiled in conflicts with the Yemeni government and engaged in a prolonged conflict with Saudi Arabia since late 2014. [1] This group, having gained control over significant parts of the north, has targeted Israel by launching missile and drone attacks in support of Palestinians during the Israel-Hamas conflict, commencing with the hijacking of the cargo ship Galaxy Leader. The Houthis view themselves as part of the “Axis of Resistance” against Israel, aligning with Iran’s support for the Palestinians. [2] Consequently, they have continually attacked commercial ships in the Red Sea. These attacks, employing missiles, drones, fast boats, and helicopters, have targeted ships (often falsely) associated with Israel on numerous occasions. [3] This has led major shipping companies like Maersk to avoid the area. [4] 

There is a growing concern that these actions might disrupt global trade routes, resulting in increased fuel prices and disruptions within the supply chain. [5] Undoubtedly, the Houthis pose a significant threat to international shipping through the Bab el-Mandeb, a crucial passage for oil transport. The Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a 20-mile-wide passage linking the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean, gained increased strategic significance following the construction of the Suez Canal. It serves as a vital link between the Mediterranean Sea and East Asia. While the Bab el-Mandeb Strait facilitates circulation between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, there is no flow through the Suez Canal. [6] The strategic value of this route, offering cost and time savings, contrasts starkly with the indirect expenses incurred due to attacks on maritime traffic, such as increased insurance rates and compensations for danger. [7] 

Finding diplomatic solutions appears challenging, as only a few powers engage with or have influence over the Houthis, with Iran being a notable exception. However, even Iran’s influence seems limited. Past sanctions against Yemen have proven ineffective in halting the conflict. Despite efforts to deter the Houthis, they indeed persist with their attacks. [8] The Houthis have also issued warnings of targeting oil facilities in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates if these countries join a coalition against them, a move that could significantly escalate global tensions and impact oil prices and shipping. This situation presents a precarious scenario where an escalation in attacks on neutral ships could lead to widespread consequences, despite the ongoing suffering and destruction in the region. [9]

Subsequently, the United States (“US”) established a multinational maritime security force to combat the Houthis, involving countries like Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, the Seychelles, and the United Kingdom. [10] This coalition of mainly Western countries has cautioned the Houthi rebels against their continued attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea. The coalition formally issued a warning, denouncing these attacks as illegal, unacceptable, and destabilising, and threatened consequences if they persist. [11] Despite the establishment of this task force, Houthi attacks using anti-ship ballistic missiles have persisted, causing concern among US officials. Recent clashes, during which the US sank Houthi boats and which resulted in casualties among Houthi fighters, indicate a significant escalation, raising concerns among Yemenis about potential spillover conflicts. [12] 

Sources and further reading

[1] Andrej Confalonieri, ‘Houthi Rebels at Sea: Escalating Tensions Beyond Borders’ (GHRTV, 1 December 2023) <Houthi Rebels at Sea: Escalating Tensions Beyond Borders - Human Rights News> accessed 03 January 2024.

[2] Ibid

[3] James Landale, Frank Gardner, ‘Houthis defiant after warning over Red Sea attacks’ (BBC News, 04 January 2023) <https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-67878906?at_medium=RSS&at_campaign=KARANGA> accessed 04 January 2024. 

[4] Al Jazeera, ‘US army attacks three Houthi boats in Red Sea, killing at least 10 fighters’ (Al Jazeera, 31 December 2023) accessed 04 January 2024.

[5] Landale, Gardner (n 3).

[6] Encyclopaedia Brittanica, ‘Bab el-Mandeb Strait’ (4 January 2024) <Bab el-Mandeb Strait | Map, Location, & Facts | Britannica> accessed 05 January 2024. See also Richard B. Remnek, ‘The Strategic Importance of the Bab el-Mandeb and the Horn of Africa’ (1990) 43(4) Naval War College Review 6. 

[7] Zoran Kusovac, ‘Analysis: Is the Houthi threat to world order worse than the war on Gaza?’ (Al Jazeera, 13 December 2023) <Analysis: Is the Houthi threat to world order worse than the war on Gaza?> accessed 04 January 2024.

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] Maziar Motamedi, ‘Can the US-led maritime force stop Yemen’s Houthi attacks during Gaza war?’ (Al Jazeera, 19 December 2023) <Can the US-led maritime force stop Yemen’s Houthi attacks during Gaza war? | Israel War on Gaza News | Al Jazeera> accessed 04 January 2024; Al Jazeera, ‘US announces 10-nation force to counter Houthi attacks in Red Sea’ (Al Jazeera, 19 December 2023) accessed 04 January 2024. 

[11] Landale, Gardner (n 3). 

[12] Al Jazeera (n 4).