The direct route to ending Red Sea threats runs through Yemen

Securing a peace settlement will help avoid further high-stakes escalations from the country's Houthi rebels

A televised statement by a Houthi military spokesman is watched in Sanaa, Yemen. The rebels' recent actions suggest they are trying to smokescreen domestic shortcomings rather than help Palestinians. EPA
Powered by automated translation

One of the problems with choosing to escalate a situation is what to do if it spirals out of control. Yemen’s Houthi rebels have been engaged in their own escalation game by launching a series of attacks in nearby skies and seas, ostensibly targeting vessels bound for Israel, as well as Israel itself. But the impact is being felt in the global marketplace. On Tuesday, BP became the latest energy giant to suspend oil and gas shipments through the Red Sea and the US announced the formation of a 10-nation task force to police the strategic waterway.

A closer look at the Houthis’ tactics over the past few weeks shows the movement looking disconcertingly more like a pseudo-state trying to smokescreen its domestic shortcomings and shore up its negotiating position by threatening global commerce and energy supplies.

Meanwhile, Yemenis continue to suffer from food shortages and chronic poverty. Education and health care are negligible, and question remarks remain over the payment of government salaries in Houthi-controlled parts of the country. In addition, the International Labour Organisation has detailed what it calls "mass-scale unemployment" in Yemen and Unicef says more than 2.4 million school-aged girls and boys are out of school. These grim facts are a source of discontent with the Houthis, who have little to offer except revolutionary rhetoric.

The grandstanding on Palestine, which has increased dramatically since October 7, at once energises the Houthis’ core supporters but also obfuscates their lack of political achievements; despite maintaining a fragile truce with Yemen’s legitimate government for two years, the rebels have been unable to secure a lasting peace deal that would make life better for the millions of people who live under their rule.

In this context, the Houthis’ escalation in the Red Sea over the past few weeks takes on a different character. Rather than striking a blow on behalf of the people of Gaza, the movement is making a high-stakes gamble that by disrupting global trade it will force negotiating partners and the international community into dealing with Yemen on the Houthis’ terms.

This rhetoric now has a much bigger problem from which to deflect: the contradiction that arises from the Houthis’ opposition to western influence but then ensuring – thanks to their Red Sea attacks – that western countries will be more engaged in the area than before.

The task force announced by US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin was inevitable given that Egypt’s Suez Canal is losing traffic as ships reroute, insurance prices are rising, Saudi Red Sea ports are threatened and Europe needs GCC energy imports via the Red Sea after moving away from Russian supplies. The Houthi attacks also threaten trade and shipments to China and India. All of this made a swift and significant response inevitable.

However, it is far from clear if this Houthi gamble will pay off. Oil prices were still under $80 a barrel as of Tuesday and the route remains open to traffic, albeit full of more western warships than before. In addition, this increase in military force risks reigniting a war in Yemen that many hoped had been heading for resolution. The US also has the option of redesignating the Houthis as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation – something that would further complicate peace efforts.

A ceasefire in Gaza is vital, while ending the conflict in Yemen is the most direct route to ending threats to Red Sea shipping. Merely managing Yemen’s divisions should not be an option – it threatens regional stability, global trade and is especially bad for the long-suffering Yemeni people. The presence of more US and European firepower is a warning that the Houthis should heed.

Published: December 20, 2023, 3:00 AM