Friday, December 29, 2023


In Yemen, the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels have been carrying out attacks against ships they consider to be tied to Israel as they cross the Bab al-Mandeb straight, one of two of the most important bottlenecks in global trade, as it leads to the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean. This has not been good for global trade (Bloomberg):

To avoid Houthi threat in Red Sea, 299 vessels with a combined capacity to carry 4.3 million containers have either changed course or plan to. That’s about double the number from a week ago and equates to about 18% of global capacity. The diverted journeys around Africa can take as much as 25% longer than using the Suez Canal shortcut between Asia and Europe, according to Flexport. Those trips are more costly and may lead to higher prices for consumers on everything from sneakers to food to oil if the longer journeys persist.

The Houthis are very proud of their accomplishment, and have not been shy about telling the world. There are little repercussions for them, to be honest. The Houthis and Iran are already under sanctions from the West, and it is not like extremely poor Yemen is particularly dependent on Western imports. I mean, they even uploaded the video of them hijacking the boat to Twitter. They did have the decency to blur the faces of the sailors, I guess. The Houthis are not the "internationally recognized" government of Yemen, despite the waning of the civil war.

This is inconvenient for the United States, which prefers when American ships can pass through the Red Sea and into the Mediterranean easily. Additionally, the United States does not like when bad things happen to their friend Israel. They are trying to get the Houthis to stop, parking several destroyers in the area. 

Bloomberg Economics says although the US and its partners have successfully intercepted a large share of these attacks, such a defensive strategy is expensive and the risks are still sending shipping insurance higher.

“While the US-led coalition might appear successful militarily, it might not be sufficient for major shipping companies to resume Red Sea transits,” said Gerard DiPippo, senior geo-economic analyst with Bloomberg Economics. “The longer the Houthi attacks continue, the more pressure the US will face to go on the offensive, which risks regional escalation.”

There are two ways, according to "analysts," for the United States to make Bab al-Mandeb safer (US News):

  1. Grouping commercial ships into a convoy, surrounding it with warships, and escorting it to port.
  2. Creating a safe Maritime Security Transit Corridor, a sea passage divided into sectors and guarded and monitored by warships on independent patrols.

Weird how "stop the root cause" does not come onto this list. Regardless, option 1 is very expensive and time consuming and therefore suboptimal. Option 2 has not been going entirely issue-free for the US. Maersk, a major shipper, has announced they will return to the Red Sea. The US announced Operation Prosperity Guardian, which it claims 20 countries have signed up for. Only 12 are named, including Seychelles, which will only help in "providing and receiving information." Countries that are typically considered Western allies are uninterested, even though they were mentioned (The Times of Israel):

Although Britain, Greece and others have publicly embraced the US operation, several mentioned in the US announcement were quick to say they are not directly involved.

Italy’s Defense Ministry said that it would send a ship to the Red Sea following requests from Italian ship owners and not as part of the US operation. France said it supports efforts to secure freedom of navigation in the Red Sea but that its ships would remain under French command.

Spain and its left-leaning government are not fans:

Spain has said it will not join Operation Prosperity Guardian and opposes using an existing EU anti-piracy mission, Atalanta, to protect Red Sea shipping. But on Wednesday, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said he was willing to consider the creation of a different mission to tackle the problem.

China doesn't want to help the US because they don't feel threatened, don't want to show support to Israel, and don't want to show friendliness to US plans. Middle Eastern friends don't want to stoke issues with the Houthis.

Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates earlier proclaimed no interest in the venture.

The whole situation, in my opinion, is awkward. If the Houthis are honestly doing this in support of the Palestinians, it does not seem to be working, because the affected trade seems to mostly hurt prices in wealthy countries who can absorb the higher prices that barriers to trade would create. If the Houthis are doing it for more attention, they are definitely getting it. That doesn't explain why they don't do the same in regular times. They could be doing it to gain support in Yemen, which is what some Haaretz reporters say they have been gaining. None of the US deterrence has stopped the Houthi attacks, though. 

Israel will only listen to one country (the US), and perhaps not even then. The US telling Israel to halt the war on Gaza would most likely stop the Houthis from bombing ships passing through the Red Sea. Yes, it does give the Houthis what they want. It would make them more popular in Yemen, and would mean that Israel has to lose in Gaza too. It would all around be a lose-lose for the US. Yet the way the US is going around it right now just looks a little pathetic. Your friends won't even ally with you, and you are being attacked by 100,000 rebels in one of the poorest countries in the world. I think it is bad to bomb commercial ships that have not been involved in attacking you. I think that a realpolitik approach of weighing options may be what the US is trying to do here, but it is unclear that the US' strategy in Israel is actually getting the US the results it strategically wants. That might be different than what it politically wants.