Fears Houthi attacks will revive Red Sea piracy

Escalation of violence with tragic results forecast in Yemen's Bab Al Mandeb

Maritime police patrol the Gulf of Aden amid a spate of attacks by Houthis in the area. EPA
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Pirates and other armed groups could be emboldened by Houthi attacks on ships in the Red Sea and carry out their own, an expert has warned.

Attacks on ships at the weekend by the Iran-backed Houthis prompted clashes with the US Navy and a warning of "direct action" from the UK.

While an escalation in Yemen's Bab Al Mandeb remains likely, there is an “additional risk” that piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea could be revived, said Farea Al Muslimi, research fellow at the international affairs think tank Chatham House in London.

“The attacks will also likely inspire other armed groups and militias to consider reactivating their old piracy activities from over a decade ago,” he said on Monday.

The UN's organised crime agency has described piracy in the Red Sea as “dormant”, but the threat of its revival remains alongside illicit activities such as smuggling.

Diplomatic efforts are under way to try to stem the Houthi attacks on international shipping, a UK government representative told The National, despite Defence Secretary Grant Shapps warning on Sunday that the UK was considering air strikes.

“While planning is under way for a range of scenarios, no decisions have yet been made and we continue to pursue all diplomatic routes," the British representative said on Monday.

UK Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron said he had spoken to Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian on Sunday.

The level of Iran’s involvement in the latest wave of Houthi attacks is difficult to calculate, Mr Al Muslimi said, but it was likely the violence was endorsed by the regime in Tehran.

“Whether Iran asked the Houthis to carry out these attacks or not no longer really matters. The Houthis actions are even beyond what Iran would have dreamt of or asked for,” he said.

The Houthi attacks on Red Sea ships began in November in response to the Israeli bombardment of Gaza.

Three small boats were sunk and 10 Houthi fighters killed by the US Navy as they attacked and attempted to board a Maersk vessel on Sunday, the rebel group said.

The militants had turned the Red Sea into the “newest front line” of the so-called Axis of Resistance, a coalition of Iran-backed forces operating in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Gaza and Yemen, Mr Al Muslimi said.

The Houthis view themselves as another front against Israel and are unlikely to cease until the war in Gaza comes to an end, he added.

“As long as the Gaza war goes on, the Houthis will escalate in the Red Sea and they have no plans to de-escalate,” Mr Al Muslimi said.

The “minuscule cost” of these attacks had outstripped the consequences, he added, in their ability to disrupt trade and international order.

The attacks were likely to have “tragic” consequences for food supply in Yemen, Mr Al Muslimi said, with shortages already compounded by the pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

“That’s not something the Houthis calculate for or care about," he added. "Hence, they will continue at any cost.”

Updated: January 02, 2024, 8:23 AM