Attack of the Red Sea

Image Credit: Birmingham Public Library via Wikimedia Commons

Lucy Warmington recounts the recent Houthi attacks on ships in the Red Sea and the US and UK response in Yemen.

Tensions in the Middle East have risen after the Yemen-based Houthi rebel group began striking at ships passing through the Red Sea last month. The Houthis claim to be attacking ships with any links to Israel in a bid to support Hamas and an end to the Israeli attacks on Gaza, in which over 24,000 people have been killed and over 62,000 have been injured. Many of the attacks by Houthi rebels have been made on ships with no apparent links to Israel. 

The US and UK issued warnings to the Houthis, stating that the attacks were a threat to freedom of navigation and lives at sea whilst causing significant disruptions to a vital trade route.

Despite US/UK warnings, the attacks in the Red Sea have continued. On the 11th of January, the US and UK conducted the first of ongoing military strikes in Yemen. Thirty locations were targeted, and the strikes killed five people, believed to be Houthi militants. 

On the 11th of January, the US and UK conducted the first ongoing military strikes in Yemen.

In response, Houthi rebels have declared US and UK ships as legitimate potential targets for future attacks, regardless of affiliation with Israel. The Houthis have also launched anti-ship ballistic missiles at US-owned and controlled ships. 

By the 18th of January, the US had conducted their fifth round of targeted strikes in Yemen. US President Joe Biden has openly stated that the strikes are not stopping the Houthi attacks but that the strikes will continue anyway. Houthi rebels have clearly stated that they will continue their attacks in the Red Sea unless there is an end to the Israeli attacks on Gaza and humanitarian aid is allowed to enter.

Thousands of people have taken to the streets in Sana’a, Yemen, to protest against the US and UK strikes and to show their solidarity with Palestine. The Saudi-backed government in Yemen has placed blame on the Houthi movement for the US/UK airstrikes but has also called on the UK to support an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.  

UCD Lecturer in Middle East politics and terrorism and political violence, Dr Vincent Durac, has said in a comment to the University Observer that “for all sorts of reasons, I believe that it is not in the interests of key actors to see a region-wide escalation in the conflict; neither do I think the US/UK strikes on Yemen will deter the Houthis from further action in the Red Sea, indeed they have made this clear.” However, Durac also notes that the recent US/UK strikes on Yemen have only increased the popularity of the Houthi movement across the Middle East, and it is likely their position on Gaza is political as well as ideological; it aims further to increase domestic and regional support for the Houthi movement. 

Continued tensions in the Red Sea are expected to impact the global economy and consumer prices. The price of crude oil has already increased since the US strikes in Yemen, and with 15% of world shipping travels through the Red Sea’s Bab-el-Mandeb strait to enter the Suez Canal, it is one of the world’s most important trade routes. Since the Red Sea attacks began, 95% of Indian trade vessels that ordinarily pass through the Red Sea have been rerouted to the Cape of Good Hope, travelling around the bottom of southern Africa. This adds between 4000-6000 nautical miles and a further 14-20 days to shipping journeys.

Continued tensions in the Red Sea are expected to impact the global economy and consumer prices. 

The Houthis are a Yemeni rebel group who are supported by the Iranian government (Islamic Republic), as are Hamas and Hezbollah, and they seek to reduce Western influence in the Middle East. Their slogan is ‘Death to America, Death to Israel, curse the Jews and victory to Islam’. The Houthi movement is a highly prominent political actor in Yemen and has been engaged in a war with the internationally-backed Yemeni government since 2004, which further escalated in 2014 when the Houthis displaced the aforementioned Yemeni government. The long war in Yemen has led to one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. 

The long war in Yemen has led to one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. 

Saudi Arabia forms part of a coalition of Arab states, along with the UK and US, which backs the Yemeni government. They have carried out a military campaign in Yemen in an attempt to restore the Saudi-backed government to full power. Yemen saw a UN-led ceasefire put in place from April 2022 until October 2022, and in December 2023, all warring parties took significant steps towards another UN-led ceasefire.