Houthis couldn’t stop genocide, but exposed the West’s moral bankruptcy

They proved that the West values swift shipping at reasonable prices much more than the lives of Palestinian children.

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)
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]

The British and American air strikes on Yemen since January 12, launched with support from Australia, Canada, and the Netherlands among others, demonstrate yet again how most Western nations value their money and profit much more than human life.

Israel’s devastating war on Gaza, the first livestreamed genocide in history, has claimed more than 27,000 Palestinian lives, many of them children, since October 7. Most of the Gaza Strip has been reduced to rubble and over a million people have been displaced due to relentless and seemingly indiscriminate Israeli bombardment. The near-total siege on the Strip, meanwhile, brought survivors to the brink of starvation and forced doctors to perform amputations without anaesthetics using unsterile tools. In the face of this undeniable humanitarian catastrophe, Western governments took no meaningful action. In fact, both US President Joe Biden and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak repeatedly made it clear that they will continue to unconditionally support Israel’s onslaught on Gaza and efforts to “eradicate Hamas” whatever the human cost may be for the Palestinians.

In the end, it was not the killing and maiming of tens of thousands of civilians, but a number of non-fatal attacks by Yemen’s Houthi fighters on commercial ships passing through the strategically important Bab al-Mandeb Strait that sprung Western nations into action. Clearly, the dollars and pounds lost to the rapid rise in shipping costs caused by the attacks proved more valuable to the leaders of “the free world” than rivers of Middle Eastern blood.

The Bab al-Mandeb Strait, which leads into the Red Sea and up to the Suez Canal, is one of the most crucial waterways for international trade.  It is estimated that 12 percent of all global trade, including most exports of petroleum and natural gas from the Gulf, passes through the Strait, amounting to $1 trillion of commerce per year.

Located east of the Mediterranean Sea, Israel relies on this trade route for most of its goods. The Houthis say it was this dependency that prompted them to start intercepting Israel-bound and Israeli-owned ships passing through Bab al-Mandeb. They said they will stop the attacks if Israel agrees to a ceasefire in Gaza, or at least allows sufficient humanitarian aid in.

The Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping, conducted in ways reminiscent of Hollywood action movies, have so far led to no loss of life among the civilian crews of targeted ships, but inflicted significant economic damage on Israel and its backers. It is estimated that since the start of Houthi attacks, Israel’s main port in Eilat saw an 85 percent drop in activity.

These attacks also caused some major shipping companies, including British Petroleum and Shell, to entirely suspend their operations in the Red Sea. The suspensions led to severe delays in goods deliveries as well as unprecedented increases in shipping costs. According to the latest available figures, typical shipping prices are 329 percent more expensive today than before the beginning of the disruption in this key shipping route in November.

The attacks also increased the popularity of Houthis both in Yemen and across the region, and led to the rebranding of the Iran-backed armed group as an honourable and noteworthy resistance force against Western imperial aggression.

Western nations could have, of course, avoided all this and saved many, many Palestinian lives, by simply compelling Israel to put a stop to its genocide in Gaza and end its occupation of Palestinian territories. Rather than upsetting Israel by telling it to stop killing Palestinians, however, the leaders of the West decided to embark on yet another bombing campaign against one of the poorest countries in the world.

With this move they showed not only that they do not care about mass murder when it is committed by one of their allies, but also that they value profit margins of Western commercial giants much more than Middle Eastern lives.

Of course, none of this is in any way surprising, or out of the ordinary.

After all, in capitalism,  human life – be it Palestinian, Yemeni, American or British – is just another commodity. Western governments function in a ruthless economic system where dystopian concepts like “value of a statistical life (VSL)” are normalised. VSL aims to calculate the amount of money that a society would realistically be willing to pay to save a human life. It assigns humans a monetary worth that goes on to inform government policy. If a certain lifesaving measure is deemed more expensive than the VSL of those it would save, then the policy is not implemented. For example, in 1975, the US Department of Transportation rejected a regulation to install safety bars at the rear of all trucks, which would have reduced the number of fatalities in collisions, because it deemed the cost of implementing the policy would exceed the VSL of those that would be saved as a result of it.

If the US government is willing to allow American civilians going about their lives in the United States to die preventable deaths at the altar of capitalism, it is not surprising that it scrambled together an entire task force to protect commercial ships from an anti-West resistance group in the Red Sea.

Furthermore, while it is very rare for Western governments to take meaningful action – military or otherwise – to save human lives, and especially non-Western lives, it is very much part of their routine to wage war for economic gain. The 2003 Iraq war, for example, is largely accepted to be a war fought for “big oil”. The war killed more than a million Iraqis, and caused unprecedented instability that birthed further conflict and misery, but provided companies like the BP with profits of many billions.

Late last month, explaining his decision to attack Yemen alongside the US, Britain’s Sunak claimed “We cannot stand by and allow these attacks to go unchallenged. Inaction is also a choice”.

The hypocrisy in this sentence is staggering.

The British prime minister only acknowledged that inaction is indeed “also a choice” when Houthi fighters decided that they would take action, and hit the capitalist West where it hurts – in its wallet – to try and put an end to Israel’s relentless attacks on the Palestinians.

He has been very much content with inaction for four long months as Israel killed, injured, displaced and starved more than two million human beings in Gaza with complete impunity. In fact, he is still very much content with taking no action, other than a few empty statements and sending a little aid, to save Palestinian lives.

The Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping have not been able to put an end to genocide, or deliver a lifeline to the Palestinians suffocating in Gaza. Nevertheless, they managed to expose the West’s priorities, and its seemingly inherent inability to recognise and respect the value of life, and especially that of the Palestinians.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.