Recent attacks on commercial vessels by Houthi militia in the Red Sea have put the vital shipping region in the spotlight. The Yemen-based rebels claim to be targeting Israeli-linked vessels, in protest at Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza. The UN Security Council recently passed a resolution demanding an immediate end to the Houthi attacks, while the US and UK have launched a series of strikes on Yemen against the rebels.
Burak Şakir Şeker, who has studied security issues in the Red Sea, shares his insights on the global importance of the region, the security issues that exist and how these must be addressed.
Why is the Red Sea such an important international area?
The Bab al-Mandab Strait between Yemen, in the Middle East, and Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, is one of the world’s busiest oil transit points and is of great importance for the Red Sea. It’s a historically important trade transit route. Its proximity to the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf reduces shipping distances and facilitates trade. About 33,000 merchant ships pass through the strait every year.
Because of its strategic importance, one of the greatest consequences of insecurity in the Red Sea is a significant increase in the cost of global trade and global energy transportation.
For example, an oil tanker leaving the Gulf would reach the port of London, 12,000km away, in 14 days (at a speed of 22 knots) via the Strait of Hormuz and the Red Sea. But if that route is not available the tanker would have to go around the southern tip of Africa – a 24-day journey covering 20,900km.
The Red Sea’s strategic importance also makes it an important geopolitical area. Countries have military bases here and intervene to protect oil and merchant shipping. These include military bases of Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, China, the US, Italy, France, and Japan.
The Red Sea is therefore an area where complex global relations can play out. For instance, Israel’s attempt to control the Sinai Peninsula, one of the key supply routes for the Palestinian resistance, threatens the safety of merchant shipping in the Red Sea.
The Red Sea is also a security hotspot, drawing in countries that sit on either side of it, such as Yemen and Eritrea, as well as countries much further afield, such as the US and China.
Who are the Houthi militia? Why are they carrying out attacks?
Because of the fragility, or lack, of central government in Somalia and Yemen, non-state armed groups are becoming more active. Examples include the Houthi and al-Hirak in Yemen and Somalia’s al-Shabaab and Ansar al-Sharia.
The Houthi militia, also known as Ansar Allah, is a rebel group based in Yemen. Originating from the Zaidi Shia Muslim minority, they rose to prominence in the early 2000s, opposing Yemen’s central government. The group’s name comes from its founder, Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi.
The Houthis aim to establish a Zaidi Shia-led government in Yemen. They’ve been involved in armed conflicts with the Yemeni government supported by Saudi-UAE coalition, including the Yemeni Civil War. They’re also backed by Iran. This is not to say the Houthi are a monolithic entity with a single common agenda; they are a complex and volatile coalition.
The Houthis are, currently, the Red Sea basin’s most pressing security danger.
Houthi soldiers have hounded, assaulted and taken control of many boats since 2016. Their earliest techniques, such as rocket-propelled grenades, were not very sophisticated, but their strategies have evolved to be more hazardous and successful. They have employed mines, drones and anti-ship missiles. The biggest casualty of their attacks are Saudi ships and ports.
The Houthi have weakened Yemen and exposed the country to foreign intervention. For instance, in 2015, the United States supported Saudi Arabia’s intervention to prevent the Houthis from invading all of Yemen.
What are the other major security challenges facing the region?
The biggest are the ongoing wars and tensions between and within each country. These include disputes over the affiliation of the Red Sea islands, border disputes, territorial claims, conflicting economic interests, ideological differences and ethnic divisions. Examples of these include the Yemen-Saudi Arabia War and tensions between Sudan, Ethiopia and Egypt over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
Regional crises – such as the Arab Spring, the Yemen crisis, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Sudan and Qatar blockades – also have a direct impact on the balance of power in the Red Sea.
Another major, escalating security problem is that the Red Sea is being used by smugglers smuggling – goods as well as people. They have used the proceeds to finance civil wars and terrorist activities in the region.
Due to its transit point and proximity to conflict zones, the Red Sea is one of the areas with the highest concentrations of arms and human traffickers.
The growing power of the illegal sector has adversely affected regional stability. It has paved the way for the formation of many organised crime groups. It has also claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.
What must be done to better secure the Red Sea area?
For a number of years, the main security issue in the wider region was Somali piracy. A major coordinated naval operation, involving key international actors, helped to address the threat and shows what can be achieved.
This suggests that the first approach to this regional crisis should be regional cooperation.
In 2020 the Red Sea Council (AKA Council of Arab and African Coastal States of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden) was established by Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Djibouti, Somalia, Eritrea, Egypt, Yemen and Jordan with the aim of maintaining security and stability in the Red Sea. It was to consult and coordinate efforts to combat dangers, while not being a military group.
The Red Sea Council is meant to be a new regional instrument. However, the council hasn’t been able to prevent the militarisation of the Red Sea corridor – one of its mandates. This is due of a lack of support from the international community and
historical tensions over territorial issues.
It’s also mainly dominated by Saudi Arabia, based on its economic power and political authority. And so it could in fact work to limit the ability of Ethiopia, Qatar and Turkey, along with Iran, to move freely in the Red Sea.
Ultimately, increased coordination and collaboration between adversaries and allies with shared interests are necessary to ensure the safety and security of the Red Sea.
Written by Burak Şakir Şeker, Associate Professor, Department of International Relations, Ankara Hacı Bayram Veli University.
Republished with permission from The Conversation. The original article can be found here.