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New Atlanticist December 20, 2023

What’s behind the attacks on ships in the Red Sea

By Ellen Wald

For years, a Yemen-based Islamist group called the Houthis have periodically attacked ships traversing the Bab el-Mandeb Strait at the opening of the Red Sea. These attacks were focused on Saudi or Emirati vessels, typically carrying medical supplies, weapons, or oil, and they occurred during flare-ups in the ongoing conflict between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on one hand, and the Iran-backed Houthi forces in Yemen on the other. However, since the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, Houthi attacks on other ships have escalated.

Initially, it seemed the Islamic group, which now controls most of Yemen and receives financial and military support from Iran, was limiting its attacks to vessels affiliated with Israel or Israeli business interests. For example, on November 19, Houthi forces commandeered an empty ship called the Galaxy Leader and are still holding it at the Hodeidah Port in Yemen. The Galaxy Leader is operated by a Japanese company, flies a Bahamian flag, but is owned by Ray Shipping, a British company that is partially owned by an Israeli businessman. 

Recently, the Houthis have stepped up their attacks on ships in the Bab el-Mandeb corridor. Since December 9, Houthis have launched drone and missile attacks against commercial ships in the area. Some of these attacks have been thwarted by a US Navy destroyer, the USS Carney, which has been stationed in the region, but some of the missiles have hit commercial vessels and caused damage. Companies are taking note, with four out of five of the world’s largest container-shipping companies suspending routes through the Suez Canal and the Red Sea. 

Global seaborne trade will not grind to a halt, but it is going to take longer and be more expensive as vessels take alternate routes and as insurance costs rise. BP, for example, announced that it would no longer send crude oil and petroleum tankers through the Suez Canal due to the risk of Houthi attacks. Meanwhile, the credibility of some of the oldest and most important international conventions, and the ability of nations such as the United States and others to secure those conventions, are at risk.

Why the Suez Canal matters

Before these recent attacks, 12 percent of the world’s seaborne trade used the Suez Canal and therefore, went through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait to enter or exit the Red Sea. In terms of petroleum (crude oil and oil products), more than 6.2 million barrels per day of petroleum traveled through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, either through the Suez Canal or to the SUMED pipeline, which runs from south of the canal west and north across Egypt to the Mediterranean Sea. This reflects a little more than 9 percent of the total seaborne petroleum trade. The Suez Canal route has become even more crucial since European countries stopped buying Russian oil. Most of these countries have replaced a great deal of the Russian petroleum they had been importing with crude oil and products from the Middle East. The fastest route to Europe from the Middle East is through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, even though the Suez Canal is unable to accommodate some of the very largest crude oil ships, classified as Very Large Crude Carriers, or VLCCs.

Shipping traffic around Africa has jumped recently, as many companies are choosing to send their ships around the Cape of Good Hope instead of taking their chances in the Red Sea. This change can add as much as fourteen days to a trip and will incur additional fuel and personnel costs. Longer trips also mean higher greenhouse gas emissions.

This is not the first time that ships have been unable to use the Suez Canal. In 1956, the Suez Canal was shut down for six months after Egyptian forces sank several ships along the canal in retaliation for a British-French invasion of the recently nationalized canal zone. Britain and France experienced acute but short-lived disruptions to their oil supplies, and the oil industry’s long-term response was to develop the VLCC to maximize the amount of oil that could be shipped around Africa. More recently, the Suez Canal was blocked for six days in March 2021, when the container ship Ever Given got stuck, causing losses of nearly ten billion dollars a day in international trade.

What’s the plan for Prosperity Guardian?

International shipping and supply chains are significantly more resilient now than they were several years ago. Disruptions from pandemic shutdowns and sanctions on Russia have prepared companies to handle the logistics of rerouting or reloading ships to accommodate such disturbances in the least disruptive ways. But that doesn’t mean the Houthis should be allowed to continue terrorizing global commerce or that the United States Navy should be the only military force responding to Houthi attacks. Finally, this past weekend, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin declared that these attacks violate international law. This statement comes across as tepid, given that maritime conventions protecting the safe passage of commercial vessels is one of the oldest and most universally recognized international law concepts. (Freedom of navigation rights are also enshrined in the United Nations 1982 Law of the Sea Convention, which has been ratified by 169 parties).  

Even after Austin announced the formation of a multinational force called to protect ships in the Red Sea from Houthi attacks, more companies, including shipping giant Maersk, announced they would reroute ships away from the Suez Canal and the Red Sea. Their concerns are valid, as neither the United States nor the international force, called Prosperity Guardian, have addressed how they plan to thwart Houthi attacks or provide additional protection. During the decade-long Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, naval vessels escorted tankers in and out of the Persian Gulf to assure their safety during periods of maritime conflict. This would not provide adequate security in the Red Sea today because the volume of ships is much larger, and the ability to use drones makes military escorts less effective security deterrents. The Houthis have large stockpiles of missiles and drones that they can launch at ships from land. This could mean that without ground operations to destroy Houthi military infrastructure, there can be no assurances of safety.

Ellen R. Wald is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center and the president of Transversal Consulting.

Further reading

Image: A ship is pictured at the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, Yemen August 5, 2018. REUTERS/Abduljabbar Zeyad