Expert warns Houthis’ Red Sea attacks could be precursor to more regional instability

Expert warns Houthis’ Red Sea attacks could be precursor to more regional instability
Sea trade has been disrupted by the series of Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping lanes, one of several crucial chokepoints that are disrupting supply chains around the world. / bne IntelliNews
By bne IntelliNews February 7, 2024

Houthi harassment of shipping in the Red Sea is a symptom of regional tensions, and could be a precursor to “further disruptions” in the volatile region, warned Theodore Murphy, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), Africa programme. 

Global sea trade has been disrupted by the series of Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping lanes, one of several crucial chokepoints that are disrupting supply chains around the world. There has already been a 42% drop in trade volume through the Suez Canal as a result of the attacks in the Red Sea. 

The Houthis — an influential group in Yemen — launched the attacks on vessels that include both commercial ships and recently a US destroyer in what they said is a response to American-British aggression against Yemen and to support the Palestinian people amidst Israeli aggression.

This is not the first time in recent history that Red Sea shipping has come under attack. Back in 2008, Somali pirates, operating small gun boats, hijacked larger vessels for ransom. 

However, Murphy argued in a comment published by the ECFR on February 5 that the current attacks by the Houthis “represent a fundamental shift in the form and gravity of security threat” in the region. 

“This is due to the political dimension that informs the Houthis’ aggression: their as yet unstated demands in Yemen and for Israel to end the war in Gaza, but also their deployment as an armed non-state proxy – in this case by Iran,” wrote Murphy. 

“More importantly still, Somali piracy and Houthi harassment are symptoms of a Red Sea region that overflows with inter-state tensions and willing proxies. The Houthis’ current campaign thus could presage further disruptions in the region.” 

Red Sea rivalries 

Ongoing rivalries among key players, including Egypt and Turkey, in the Gulf region have resulted in strategic manoeuvring within the Horn of Africa. “[P]olitical fragmentation, shifting alliances, and ready recourse to proxy conflict characterises relations between Horn of Africa states,” wrote Murphy. 

There has been a scramble for naval bases, surveillance posts and commercial ports along the African coast of the Red Sea, an effort driven by the 2014 Yemeni conflict between Houthi rebels and the Saudi-backed government.

Saudi Arabia, backed by allies like the United Arab Emirates (UAE), sought operational hubs on the African side of the Red Sea to support military operations in Yemen. This led to agreements for bases in Eritrea and strategic interests in islands like Yemen's Perim for aerial operations.

The rift within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), notably the 2014 dispute involving Qatar and its ally Turkey, further fuelled competition for naval facilities. Turkey expanded its military footprint in Somalia, securing port rights in Mogadishu in 2014. Concurrently, Turkey and Qatar pursued the development of Suakin port in Sudan to enhance their naval presence.

The strategic significance of the Red Sea has also attracted global powers like Russia, China, France and the US. 

“This heightened interest has led to increased attention from European and US policymakers regarding the potential threats posed by the Red Sea. China's establishment of a base in Djibouti, coupled with Russia's interest in a naval base at Port Sudan, has contributed to a consensus in Western circles that a volatile situation is developing in the region,” wrote Murphy. 

Global powers

The Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, he said, demonstrate “the massive disruptive potential of some geopolitical minnows when it comes to maritime trade”.

And finding a solution has been difficult. Efforts to mediate the situation have faced challenges, particularly due to regional resistance to outside intervention. While the US and European countries have explored options for multilateral management of Red Sea affairs, initiatives like the Red Sea Council, led by Saudi Arabia, have emerged, complicating external mediation efforts.

“The US and European countries may have looked like ideal mediators – able to claim legitimate interests but also demonstrate equidistance. But a rejection of outside powers managing Red Sea affairs proved to be the only unifying driver among the regional hegemons,” according to Murphy.

This has led to Chinese involvement being, potentially, key to resolving the situation. 

“In the unipolar era, the US may have been the natural option. But China’s ascendence means the role needs to be shared across Beijing’s and Washington’s shoulders,” argues Murphy.

This, too, is problematic. "The geopolitical landscape … has changed since the days of Somali piracy. And China’s cooperation-shy approach to joining US and European efforts to combat the Houthi threat seems to nix the Washington-Beijing option.”

This, wrote Murphy, is where the EU comes in. “The EU cannot mediate in the Red Sea alone, but it could make the case to the US and China to join forces in the interest of their, and the world’s, interests,” he wrote. “This could act as microcosm for a ‘European third way’ to managing global order, one that seeks accommodation between the US and China and stops Europeans having to make zero-sum choices between one or the other.”