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Houthi Attacks In Red Sea Threaten Global Trade And Middle East Stability

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Dec 21, 2023

Multiple attacks on commercial ships by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen in recent weeks have raised alarms in the global shipping industry and prompted new international naval deployments. The assaults in the vital Red Sea shipping lane and nearby areas have disrupted traffic and increased war risks in the region.

Houthis Step Up Assaults On Commercial Shipping

The Houthis have significantly escalated assaults on commercial vessels transiting the Red Sea and surrounding waters since late November. The rebel group, which has been fighting Yemen’s internationally recognized government in a civil war since 2014, has used bomb-laden drone boats and cruise missiles to carry out most of the attacks.

According to maritime trackers, there were 14 reported incidents in November and over 25 so far in December targeting ships sailing near the Yemeni port of Hodeida. Several oil tankers have sustained minor damage, but no vessels have been sunk and there are no reports of fatalities.

Experts say the Houthis likely obtained the weapons used in the attacks from their key backer Iran. The sophisticated drones and missiles have enabled the rebels to expand the range and frequency of their assaults far beyond Yemen’s coast.

Mass Shipping Diversion, Billions In Costs

The heightened Houthi aggression has already extracted major costs on the shipping industry and global trade flows.

Over 10% of the world’s daily oil supplies pass through the narrow Bab el-Mandeb strait at the southern end of the Red Sea. After a spike in attacks in mid-December, major container lines like AP Moller-Maersk began avoiding the area and rerouting ships around the southern tip of Africa.

Analysts estimate over $4 billion worth of cargo has been diverted to date. Shipping companies face at least $300,000 in extra fuel and two additional weeks of sailing per vessel to bypass the Red Sea. The costs are ultimately passed onto consumers.

The shipping diversion also places more pressure on already strained global supply chains dealing with lingering demand/transportation mismatches after the COVID pandemic.

New International Naval Effort Announced

On December 19, the United States announced a new multinational naval alliance to protect shipping in the Red Sea area.

Dubbed the International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC), the force currently consists of the US, UK, Australia, Canada, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Yemeni government forces. France, Germany, and Italy have also signaled intent to participate.

American officials said the IMSC aims to establish a united naval presence and improve coordination between allies to deter Houthi aggression. Specific operational details remain undisclosed.

Escalation Risks Heightened

While no Houthi missiles have struck US or allied warships yet, the rebels threatened to attack any foreign naval deployments supporting the Saudi-led coalition they are fighting in Yemen’s civil war.

On December 20, a senior Houthi official warned if the US opts for a military response, “we will not stand idly by – we will have a reciprocal reaction.”

Some analysts caution the influx of Western forces in the Red Sea raises the risk of direct confrontation with Iran. They argue beefed up naval patrols could fuel a dangerous action-reaction cycle without addressing the root causes of Yemen’s conflict.

Others counter the IMSC is a prudent move to protect a critical global trade waterway from an Iranian proxy group. They say the naval coalition also serves notice that the world will not tolerate threats to commercial shipping.

Broader Impacts Of Houthi Aggression

Most experts agree the latest surge in Houthi maritime attacks seems timed to build leverage amid ongoing UN-led peace negotiations with Yemen’s government.

By threatening global oil supplies and trade, the rebels aim to pressure Western powers to push for an end to the coalition’s blockade of Houthi-held areas. Access to fuel and other essential imports remains a key sticking point in the stalled talks.

However, the Red Sea assaults could seriously backfire. Outrage over disruption and fears of wider regional instability may only stiffen the Saudi-led coalition’s stance.

There are also worries the Houthi naval campaign is alienating parties the rebels need to win over to achieve an equitable settlement. Ultimately, most Yemenis desire an end to eight years of devastating war.

Whether the brinkmanship achieves Houthi objectives or brings catastrophic blowback remains uncertain. Much depends on how key external players like the US, Iran and Saudi Arabia respond in coming weeks.

Outlook

Houthi officials show no signs of backing off threats to commercial shipping despite new international naval deployments. Most experts expect rebel attacks in the Red Sea area to continue, with significant implications for global trade and politics.

The standoff leaves major shipping lines in limbo, facing difficult choices on whether to brave the hazardous route or assume massive diversion costs. Red Sea transits under naval escort may emerge as an option.

Iran seems likely to keep funneling weapons enabling ever-bolder Houthi strikes. However, direct confrontation between US and Iranian forces remains unlikely.

For now, the expanding crisis promises further complex challenges for all parties invested in securing peace in Yemen and stability in the wider region.

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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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