Beyond Gaza: How Yemen’s Houthis gain from attacking Red Sea ships

The group’s position on a critical maritime choke point gives them leverage in diplomatic talks over Yemen’s future.

This photo released by the Houthi Media Center shows Houthi forces boarding the cargo ship Galaxy Leader on Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023. Yemen's Houthis have seized the ship in the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen after threatening to seize all vessels owned by Israeli companies. (Houthi Media Center via AP)
Houthi forces boarding the cargo ship Galaxy Leader on Sunday, November 19, 2023, in the Red Sea [Houthi Media Center via AP]

Beirut, Lebanon – A 10-country coalition led by the United States is unlikely to be able to stop Yemen’s Houthi rebels from attacking ships in the Red Sea, but both sides have an interest in avoiding an escalation that could spiral out of control, analysts have told Al Jazeera.

Their attacks on commercial and military ships potentially connected to Israel are, according to Houthi officials, aimed at pressuring Israel to end its war on Gaza. The Houthi attacks have been popular domestically in Yemen, allowing the group to recruit new fighters.

“The Houthis aren’t going to stop what they’re doing, until the Israeli offensive in Gaza concludes,” Gregory Brew, an analyst at the Eurasia Group, told Al Jazeera, “and even then they are likely to continue for some time after.”

Israel’s bombing and artillery shelling have killed more than 20,000 Palestinians in Gaza since October 7.

‘Underestimated’ leverage

On November 19, the Houthis took over an Israeli-linked cargo ship called the Galaxy Leader and shortly after released a slick video of the vessel’s capture. It has since been turned into a tourist attraction for Yemenis. The group has subsequently attacked numerous vessels passing through the Bab al-Mandeb strait, a narrow passageway leading into the Red Sea and further on to the Suez Canal.

The Red Sea and Suez Canal account for 30 percent of the world’s container ship traffic.

“The Houthis’ position in northern Yemen has put them at a critical geopolitical choke point,” Sanam Vakil, deputy head of the Middle East North Africa programme at Chatham House, told Al Jazeera. “This was underestimated by the international community over the past few years.”

There have been no injuries or deaths reported from Houthi attacks so far. But the fallout has still been immense for global shipping. At least 12 shipping companies have suspended transit through the Red Sea over the attacks, among them some of the world’s largest: the Italian-Swiss giant Mediterranean Shipping Company, France’s CMA CGM and Denmark’s AP Moller-Maersk.

About 12 percent of the world’s seaborne oil and eight percent of liquefied natural gas, passes through the Bab al-Mandeb strait, mostly headed to Europe. But other items like grain, palm oil and manufactured goods are also affected by the attacks. Many companies are instead travelling around the southern tip of Africa, extending their journey by about nine days and costs by at least 15 percent.

The response

In response, the United States has imposed sanctions on 13 alleged financiers of the Houthis. And it has put together the 10-nation maritime coalition to try to deter Houthi attacks in the Red Sea. Other members include the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Seychelles and Bahrain.

Yemen’s internationally recognised government, which operates out of Aden after nine years of a devastating war waged by the Houthis, has condemned the Red Sea attacks as usurpations of their sovereignty. But it’s in a difficult position because it does not want to be seen as supportive of Israel, Nicholas Brumfield, a Yemen researcher, told Al Jazeera.

Meanwhile, Iran, a key backer of the Houthis, has stayed wary of taking steps that could lead to an expansion of the war in Gaza to the broader region. However, there are limitations to the influence Iran wields on the Houthis, experts said.

“They have some shared goals with Tehran but we shouldn’t overestimate the leverage Iran has on the Houthis,” Eleonora Ardemagni, a senior associate research fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), told Al Jazeera. “They have their own agenda.”

Palestinian support and mobilisation

Before October 7, the Houthis were coming under domestic pressure over issues such as unpopular government reforms and a failure to pay salaries. But their support for the people of Gaza has been overwhelmingly popular among Yemenis.

“They have long been quite ideologically opposed to Israel,” Vakil said of the Houthis. “In particular, they are trying to demonstrate the transnational implications of their views and showcase power and positioning.”

Houthi state media has announced more than 1,000 protests, boycotts or recruitment drives since the start of the war, according to Brumfield. Many in Yemen are tired of fighting, after just under a decade of civil war. But support for Palestine has proven so popular that the Houthis have been able to recruit new fighters – whom they have then been able to deploy for the domestic war.

“They’ve recruited a bunch of fighters on the promise that they would get to go fight in Palestine,” Brumfield said. “They said ‘You’ll get to go fight in Palestine’ and then they deployed those forces against the Yemeni government stronghold of Marib.”

The attacks in the Red Sea might also be a diplomatic strategy in part, according to some analysts. In recent months, the Houthis and Saudi Arabia have been engaged in dialogue aimed at a long-term ceasefire, after a United Nations-mediated truce in 2022 that has largely brought fighting to a halt. Saudi Arabia supports the internationally recognised government of Yemen. Tensions in the Red Sea and potential disruptions to oil trade hurt most regional economies, of which Saudi Arabia is the biggest.

“From where they sit, [the attack on shipping vessels] is an opportunity to raise the stakes against Saudi Arabia,” Vakil said. “What we could be witnessing is a bit of a renegotiation.”

Red lines in the Red Sea

The impact on global shipping through Bab al-Mandeb and the Red Sea has drawn the action of the United States and other allies. But so far, that does not appear to have deterred the Houthis.

“We have emphasised to everyone that [the Houthi] operations are to support the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip, and that we cannot stand idly by in the face of the aggression and siege,” Houthi spokesperson Mohamed Abdulsalam said in comments to Al Jazeera on Monday. “As for naval operations, they are in full swing, and perhaps not 12 hours will pass without an operation.”

Yet despite the rhetoric, both the Houthis and the US have maintained some restraint so far.

On November 26, the Houthis fired two ballistic missiles that landed near a US warship. Brumfield believes the Houthis purposefully missed the warship.

Currently, the US coalition is more intent on defending ships passing through the Red Sea by intercepting Houthi attacks. “The US doesn’t want to escalate this crisis” either, Brew, the Eurasia Group analyst, said. The US has so far not fired back towards Yemen, despite the missiles flying towards the Red Sea from the Houthis.

A change in that equation is not in the Houthis’ interests.

“They know not to cross that line,” Brumfield said. The Houthis don’t want a scenario where “the United States will stop thinking of the Houthis as the unpleasant but tolerable rulers of northern Yemen and maybe actually get committed to ousting them”.

Source: Al Jazeera