Houthi Rebels Threaten International Shipping in the Red Sea

Houthi leader Saleh al-Sammad said the group would cut off the international shipping route in the Red Sea if the Saudi-led coalition does not cease with its attack against the port city of Hudaydah. Col. (res.) Dr. Shaul Shay elaborates on the Houthi's maritime threats in the Red Sea

The explosion of a Houthi unmanned speed boat by the Saudi Royal Navy in the Red Sea (Saudi Interior Ministry via AP)

Iranian-backed Houthi militias reiterated threats to target international shipping lines and oil ships in the Red Sea. Houthi leader Saleh al-Sammad threatened on Monday to "cut international navigation route through the Red Sea" as a "strategic option" to consider if progress continues towards the west of Yemen, and if "a political solution reaches a dead end," as he put it.

During his meeting with the Deputy Special Envoy of the Secretary-General of the United Nations to Yemen Moin Shreim, he said that the ships would not be allowed to pass, referring to the intentions of the militia to strike international shipping in the Red Sea and the Bab al-Mandeb Strait. This threat comes amid the progress of the Yemeni army and the losses suffered by the Houthi militias on more than one front in Yemen.

The 25-km wide Bab al-Mandab Strait is a strategically vital maritime waterway, through which merchant ships in the Gulf of Aden sail to the Red Sea, and then to the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea. It is one of the most crowded waterways for oil transportation in the Middle East and other regions with more than 3.3 million oil barrels per day. This strait is vitally sensitive, not only to all countries bordering the Red Sea but to the world trade as a whole.                                                                    

A civil war is raging in Yemen between the Iran-aligned Houthi movement, backed by troops loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and the internationally recognized government of Abd Rabbu Mansour al-Hadi, backed by Saudi Arabia and a coalition of ten countries. 

Since 2015, strategic sea trade routes near Yemen have come under increasing threats, and Houthi militants have attacked vessels near Yemen’s coast. Several countries have already identified Houthi militias as a threat to navigation in Bab al-Mandeb, after the targeting of many ships.

The United States and the Arab Coalition forces have repeatedly warned against the threat of Iranian-backed militias to international navigation. The commander of the Saudi Royal Navy, Vice Admiral Abdullah bin Sultan al-Sultan stressed the importance of maritime security in the southern Red Sea, the Bab al-Mandab Strait, and the Gulf of Aden during a speech he delivered at the International Maritime Security Symposium (IMSS 2017). He commended the role and efforts exerted by the Arab Coalition countries led by the Kingdom to maintain the security of these important waterways and counter the Houthi threat to international maritime traffic.

It was not the first time that the Houthis threatened to target international shipping lines near the Bab al Mandab straits. Abdulmalik al-Houthi, the Houthi leader, reportedly said in November 2017, that if "the Saudi-led coalition wants oil ships to be safe, it better not invade" Hudaydah.

Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, the chief of the supreme revolutionary committee of the Houthi militias has threatened in November 2017 to target international shipping lines and oil ships in the Red Sea. "We will take measures we have not taken before, and we can target oil ships. We can do anything," al-Houthi said on Facebook. He added that they would carry out these threats if the Saudi-led coalition and legitimate forces liberate the city and port of Hudaydah, west of Yemen. "In this case, we can target oil tankers. We can do anything," he said, adding that it was the Houthis’ "legitimate right" to do so. Al-Houthi has also threatened that giant oil facilities in Saudi Arabia will be among the major targets of their "capable missiles."

Similar threats were made by Houthi leader Abdel-Malek al-Houthi in September 2017. "Today the port of Hudaydah is being threatened, and we cannot turn a blind eye to that. If the Saudi regime with a green light from the US attacks Hudaydah, then we have to take steps that we haven’t taken before," he said.

In November 2017, the Arab Coalition foiled a Houthi attack targeting international shipping lines. The Arab Coalition's spokesman, Col. Turki bin Saleh al-Maliki, said on November 11, 2017, that the coalition thwarted an imminent action to target international shipping routes. Houthi elements on the Yemeni island of Bawadi were attacked as they planned operations targeting international shipping routes and international trade. The impending attack included planning to use the small bomb-trapped boats and a group of divers to plant naval mines in the ships.

Summary

The Civil War in Yemen has presented several maritime threats. First, the Houthi rebels attacked a UAE Navy Ship HSV-2 Swift and targeted US Navy warships with anti-ship missiles in October 2016. The United States responded with Tomahawk cruise missile strikes in October 2016. In January 2017, the Houthis rammed a Saudi frigate Al Madinah with a remote-controlled explosive boat.

The Houthi militias also spread naval mines, off the western Yemeni coastline – especially in the vicinity of Mokha, Al-Hudaydah, and Midi, thereby endangering international ships and shipping lanes. These mines pose a clear threat to the safety and the movement of international and commercial shipping, making it a clear violation of international law.

The Yemeni forces and Saudi Navy are constantly engaged in mine-sweeping operations on Yemeni shores, amid warnings over mines planted by Houthi militias. However, these anti-mine warfare efforts do not seem to be sufficient for confronting the threat. The US Navy is the only force in the region that does maintain a robust anti-mine warfare capability.

Iran's backing of the Houthi rebels necessarily raises comparisons between the Bab al-Mandab situation and the significant chokepoint in the Persian Gulf's Strait of Hormuz and Iran is watching how the Trump administration and the Saudi coalition respond to the incident.

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