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How Much Do the Houthis Threaten Red Sea Shipping?

By November 26, 2019Industry News


26 Nov 2019



- Despite the Houthis' recent hijacking of some vessels near Yemen, the rebel group is unlikely to significantly disrupt most major commercial traffic, like bulk carriers and tankers, through the Red Sea.
- Nevertheless, smaller vessels like fishing ships or tugboats that stray into waters near Yemen's coast could be at risk of seizure.
- The lessons the international community learned in countering the threat of Somali piracy will provide an easy template for foreign naval forces to respond to any similar threat from Yemen.

Compared with past hijackings in the wider Red Sea region, the incident was comparatively small: On Nov. 17, Houthi fighters seized Saudi and South Korean-flagged tugboats, as well as a South Korean drilling rig in tow, near the island of Uqban. Following diplomatic efforts by Riyadh and Seoul, the Houthis released the vessels and their crews on Nov. 20, noting an internal investigation had revealed that the ships entered Yemeni waters only due to “bad weather.” Indeed, apart from the seizure highlighting the occasional impact that Yemen’s conflict can have on commercial shipping in the Red Sea, the incident does not presage a new age of piracy at the mouth of the Red Sea. While smaller vessels that stray too close to the Houthi-controlled coastline could find themselves in trouble, the rebels’ lack of ability — or even intent — to target larger commercial traffic in the center of the Red Sea suggests it will be business as usual for global shipping in the area.

A True Threat?

The seizure of foreign vessels naturally triggered concerns about the safety of merchant shipping in the area. Major disruptions in the Red Sea between the Bab el-Mandeb strait and the Suez Canal would affect trade on a global scale; as it is, oil tankers plying the Red Sea transport over 6 million barrels per day (more than 8 percent of global oil production). The area is near the epicenter of Somali-based piracy that surged in the Gulf of Aden between 2007 and 2012. What’s more, the Houthis have targeted ships with anti-ship cruise missiles from 2015 to 2018.

Those concerns notwithstanding, the recent Houthi action represents much less of a threat to merchant shipping than some have suggested. Many vessels that would present enticing targets for piracy or political hostage-taking do pass by Yemen, but most are too far out for the Houthis to attack. Indeed, Uqban, where the rebels seized the Saudi and South Korean vessels on Nov. 17, is only about 33 kilometers (21 miles) off of Yemen’s coast; the main shipping route through the Red Sea, by contrast, is about 96 kilometers out.

Moreover, because of the international community’s experience in combatting piracy in the region, would-be hijackers have little chance of seizing anything other than smaller vessels. Over the course of the Somali piracy crisis, merchant vessels traveling through the area adopted security practices that made it increasingly difficult for hijackers to wrest control of a ship. Perhaps the most important was the development of a shipboard “citadel,” a locked safe room that the crew could retreat to and disable the vessel’s controls. Of course, such precautions are unfeasible for smaller fishing vessels or tugboats like the ones captured by the Houthi coast guard on Nov. 17.

Applying the Lessons of Somalia

Accordingly, while the Houthis may be able to police the waters near their coast (at present, they control 200 kilometers of shoreline), extending their reach into the Red Sea’s main shipping lanes to gain control of larger and more significant vessels would be a stretch. Furthermore, even if the group managed to threaten individual vessels, its activities would do little to dent global trade, as one-off Houthi operations wouldn’t unduly raise insurance costs for shippers — one prominent issue that disrupted shipping off Somalia during the height of the piracy crisis from 2007 to 2012.

In the end, individual Somali piracy attempts frequently failed — but because so many pirates were at sea for so long, they ultimately managed to regularly commandeer high-value vessels. Sustaining such efforts, however, requires a large support network of financiers, negotiators, informants and logistics to keep crews out at sea. In the Somali pirates’ case, their operations eventually prompted a concerted countereffort by the international community. Foreign naval interventions, the widespread introduction of security best practices and the reluctance of companies to pay ransoms, together put such networks out of business.

While the Houthis might be able to bankroll sustained efforts at hijackings in the interests of scoring political gains, the international community is powerful enough to suppress any rebel efforts to regularly seize large vessels. The presence of foreign naval vessels in the area, as well as the likelihood that major powers would deploy more there if a hijacking threat emerged, would make it very difficult for the Houthis to maintain a presence at sea. For one, the Houthi-controlled coastline is eight times shorter than the shores from which Somali pirates used to sail, meaning foreign powers would have to patrol a far smaller sea area — and monitor a far smaller area on land for any sign of logistical preparations for a hijacking.

The Upshot

The Houthis’ inability to threaten larger vessels notwithstanding, the group could still cause problems for ships plying the route closer to shore. Clearly, smaller vessels near the coast are not outside the scope of the Houthi coast guard, and the group has previously fired on merchant vessels. Over the years, however, a combination of lost coastal territory, U.S. naval patrols and cruise missile strikes on the radar stations guiding Houthi missiles have significantly reduced the rebels’ abilities to hurt shipping. The group could resort to improvised tools such as floating naval mines or remotely operated, explosive-laden boats to threaten commercial shipping in the Red Sea, but the Houthis have demonstrated little intention of mounting such attacks lest they face decisive retaliation. Given that, the Houthi threat to Red Sea shipping is unlikely to ever be more than an occasional nuisance.

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