A number of major shipping companies have suspended routes through the Red Sea following a series of attacks on commercial vessels by Yemen’s Houthi rebels. The assaults have raised security concerns and disrupted global trade networks that pass through the vital shipping lane.
Timeline of recent Houthi attacks
The Houthis, an Iran-backed militant group that controls much of northern Yemen, have stepped up assaults on ships in the Red Sea in recent months.
|Nov. 8, 2022
|Houthis seized a UAE-flagged cargo vessel, the RWABEE, off the Yemeni port of Hodeidah
|Dec. 11, 2022
|Houthis fired a missile at a petroleum products tanker operated by an Israeli-owned firm
|Dec. 13, 2022
|Projectile struck Norwegian-flagged vessel M/T Proteus
|Dec. 14, 2022
|Rocket-propelled grenade fired at chemical tanker SS Elang
|Dec. 15, 2022
|Container ship Navios Spica set ablaze after being hit by projectile
The latest attack on December 15 targeted the Liberian-flagged Navios Spica, operated by Greek firm Navios Maritime Holdings. The container vessel, carrying cargo between Saudi Arabia and Spain, caught fire after being struck by a projectile launched from Yemen’s Houthi-controlled areas.
All crew members were reported safe as the ship headed to Djibouti under navy escort. But the string of assaults has put shipping companies on high alert.
Shipping giants suspend routes
On December 16, Danish shipping giant Maersk announced it would halt cargo shipments through the Red Sea’s southern reaches until more security for seafarers could be ensured.
German container shipping line Hapag-Lloyd also said it would avoid the area because of the “further escalation of attacks”.
The companies said they would reroute vessels around the southern tip of Africa, adding weeks to voyage times.
Maersk Chief Technical Officer Palle Laursen said the company could no longer risk the safety of its crew by sailing through the narrow Bab el-Mandeb strait, which separates Africa from the Arabian Peninsula.
“We find it is too dangerous on our people to sail in the area,” Laursen told the Financial Times.
About $1.2 trillion worth of trade passes annually through the Red Sea corridor, making it one of world’s busiest and most important trade arteries.
Why are the Houthis stepping up attacks?
The recent attacks are seen as an attempt by the Houthis to assert pressure amid stalled peace efforts in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition has been battling the rebels since 2015.
Yemen has been devastated by the conflict, which has triggered humanitarian catastrophe. Both sides have been accused of war crimes and rampant human rights abuses.
The Houthis may also be trying to choke off an important economic supply route for their adversaries while testing new weapons. Their arsenal now includes drones and advanced cruise and ballistic missiles, enabling them to strike deeper into the Red Sea from strongholds along Yemen’s western coastline.
Calls for international action
The Houthi attacks have prompted calls for more decisive international intervention to protect shipping lanes.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have demanded the United Nations Security Council shoulder responsibility for ensuring maritime security in the southern Red Sea. The U.S. Navy has been escorting vessels through flashpoint areas in recent days.
But options for foreign navies to directly engage rebel forces remain limited, as the Houthis continue to consolidate territorial gains and the diplomatic impasse persists.
Some maritime industry figures argue stepped up naval patrols could further militarize and destabilize the Red Sea arena. They have urged governments to pursue urgent diplomacy with the Houthis to prevent the vital transit route from becoming embroiled deeper in Yemen’s conflict.
“The political solution is the only permanent solution,” Ecoterra International president Gerhard Adrian told Breaking Defense news site.
Rerouting ships around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope allows them to avoid Houthi missile range but subtracts weeks from typical sailing schedules between Asia and Europe.
The longer journeys are set to raise costs for shipping lines already grappling with inflated fuel prices and ripple effects could eventually hit consumers. Each additional day at sea typically adds about $100,000 in expenses per large container vessel.
If more shipping companies curtail Red Sea operations, the economic effects could quickly stack up. Lloyd’s List maritime intelligence estimates some $13 billion worth of boxed goods pass through the narrow Bab el-Mandeb chokepoint each week alone.
Analysts say the shipping suspensions will also deprive Yemen’s warring factions of customs revenues from vessels transiting offshore waters under their control. That could deal another blow to United Nations-led peace efforts.
“A halt to shipping could exacerbate Yemen’s humanitarian crisis and do further damage to the economy, making the path the reconciliation even more difficult,” International Crisis Group’s senior Yemen analyst Peter Salisbury told The National newspaper.
With no political settlement on the horizon, the Red Sea looks set to remain a flashpoint. The Houthis have vowed to continue targeting enemy ships unless the Saudi-led coalition lifts its de facto blockade on Houthi-held ports – a key demand in any future peace deal.
For now, the vital corridor so important to global trade remains at risk of becoming embroiled deeper in Yemen’s intractable war.
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