Houthi attacks on oil tankers crossing the Red Sea were condemned on Thursday by Anwar Gargash, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, as an irresponsible act that demonstrated the importance of ousting the Iran-backed group from control of Yemen.
Oil prices rose after Saudi Arabia said it had halted oil shipments through the straits following two assaults on Saudi-operated tankers by the militia from its strongholds in Yemen.
Speaking at the Policy Exchange think tank in London, Dr Gargash warned the incident highlighted the urgency of restoring the legitimate government of Yemen.
"This is a totally irresponsible act," he said. "The effect of it actually is much wider than the region. I think this is another example of why the Houthi takeover of the Yemeni government in Sanaa should end."
While the UAE is hopeful that the efforts of the UN mediator Martin Griffiths would bring forth a breakthrough between the warring factions, Dr Gargash added that the effort to wrest control of the strategic port of Hodeidah was an urgent challenge.
“Our strategic goal in capturing Hodeidah is to shorten the war in Yemen,” he said. “Without a port, without control of the port and its revenues, without access to the sea, the Houthis will come to the table."
Allowing time for Mr Griffiths' mediation efforts, the military offensive on Hodeidah takes on two considerations – that Yemen's “very brittle” humanitarian situation is not exacerbated and that the advancing forces do not get bogged down in urban warfare in the city. However if the Houthi high command is not prepared to negotiate the handover the port and the city proper to international supervision, the advance would resume.
“You can’t drive 200 kilometres forwards and then fall back, the only way is Hodeidah is handed over,” he said. “Yemen was a tough choice for us. We either had to do something or accept what happened and succumb to Houthi control of Yemen and then we really would have a Hezbollah south in a few years.”
A statement from Khalid Al Falih, Saudi Arabia’s energy minister, revealed the decision to halt tanker movements after two vessels operated by the Saudi shipping group Bahri, each with a two-million-barrel capacity, were attacked. One of the ships suffered minor damage in the assault.
Aramco said that the decision to suspend shipments was “in the interest of the safety of ships and their crews and to avoid the risk of oil spill.”
The Arab coalition, which includes Saudi Arabia and the UAE, fighting the rebels in Yemen has repeatedly raised the alarm that the Houthis threaten vessels in the Red Sea — a key shipping route for world trade — through their control of the strategic Hodeidah port.
The Bab Al Mandab strait, one of the world’s busiest shipping routes, is the southern entrance to the Red Sea and has become an increasing focus of Houthi attacks as the three-year conflict has seen its footprint shrink under pressure from pro-government forces. An Arab coalition is fighting to restore the internationally-recognised government of President Abdrabu Mansur Hadi to power.
Col Turki Al Malki, spokesman for the coalition, said the Houthi attack originated near the city. "Port of Hodeidah is still the starting point of terrorist attacks,” he said.
The commander of the overseas wing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Qassem Soleimani, seized on the incidents to taunt Washington. "The Red Sea, which was secure, is no longer secure with the American presence,” he said. “[President Donald] Trump should know that we are nation of martyrdom and that we await him."
Dr Gargash warned that Iran had become increasingly aggressive after signing the 2015 nuclear deal and called on the US and Europe to overcome their differences to ensure Iranian generals did not treat the Arab nations as their playing field. “A united West is a cornerstone of global security,” he said.