The world needs to understand why the Red Sea is important

Analysis: Tensions surrounding the Red Sea sparked by Houthi attacks on transiting vessels have serious global economic, environmental and security ramifications

Debbie Mohnblatt/The Media Line|
Headlines worldwide have increasingly focused on the maritime domain ever since the Houthis in Yemen began persistently targeting ships sailing through the Bab el Mandeb strait en route to Europe via the Suez Canal. The Houthi attacks have effectively disrupted vital trade routes and resulted in the loss of life among sailors and damage to at least 15 vessels, with one ship wholly lost to the sea. This escalation has boosted the world's attention on the maritime domain and heightened military responses in the region, primarily led by the United States and the United Kingdom.
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"The escalation in the Red Sea highlights the centrality and irreplaceability of maritime sea lanes of communication for world trade," according to Albert Vidal, research analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
He added that it also shows how these maritime routes are vulnerable to attacks by conventional state actors and non-state actors without a navy, such as the Houthis.
3 View gallery
ספינת סחורה עולה במפרץ עדן
ספינת סחורה עולה במפרץ עדן
Houthis scored a direct hit on a ship in the Gulf of Aden
(Photo: Indian Navy Spokesperson)
The Houthis are a Yemen-based armed group aligned with Iran that controls large areas in Yemen, including its capital, Sanaa. The group emerged in the 1990s, and in 2014, they conquered Yemen's capital city, starting a civil war that persists until today. The Iranian-backed group, which has been recently designated as a terror organization by the United States, claims that the attacks on the vessels are in support of the people of Gaza amid the Israel-Hamas war.
Dr. Andreas Krieg, a lecturer at the School of Security Studies at King’s College London, Royal College of Defence Studies, and fellow at the Institute of Middle Eastern Studies, says that the maritime domain is one of the key domains in defining our global order today, and it has always been that way.
In many ways, he says, "Freedom of navigation around maritime choke points is key for the proper functioning of our international liberal order, which is based on trade, freedom of navigation, and interconnectivity."
Economic ramifications
Alessandro Bacci, senior petroleum legal analyst at S&P Global, says that the attacks on vessels in transit across the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea economically impact maritime transportation, resulting in additional costs.
However, he says that it is still too early to understand whether these changes are temporary. In that case, the involved parties may solve the issue of increased costs by simply using the protection offered by their signed contracts or by the law governing them.
Bacci notes that, if the attacks continue over a prolonged timeframe, shipowners, masters and charterers of the vessels in transit will be forced to adjust their contracts to better factor in the changed security circumstances, and increased transportation costs will be the norm.
"This episode attests to the high degree of resilience of segments of the supply chain. Oil prices, for example, have remained stable, even after Houthi attacks on oil tankers," Vidal says.
Krieg explains that, from a purely monetary point of view, the rerouting from Bab el Mandeb to the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa is less significant than some people make it out to be. He notes that while it is far more distance to be sailed, meaning that time is lost if a vessel reroutes, in terms of costs the money spent on fuel is only slightly more than the fees to get a vessel through the Suez Canal.
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תיעוד השתלטות ח'ותים על אוניית משא בים האדום
תיעוד השתלטות ח'ותים על אוניית משא בים האדום
Houthi takeover of a ship in the Red Sea
(Photo: Houthi Military Media/Handout via REUTERS)
Krieg adds that the escalation in the Red Sea does bring serious economic ramifications for Egypt since it relies extensively on the revenue generated through the Suez Canal and, due to the escalation, shipping companies have chosen to reroute and bypass the Suez Canal.
Vidal notes that Egypt is losing about 50% or more of those revenues at January's rate. "If this were to continue, Egypt could lose $5 billion or more this year," he added.
The crisis is also impacting several East African countries, Vidal continued. This is because grain entering these countries takes a longer route, with subsequent price increases.
Particularly in Sudan, he added, the "humanitarian aid coming from Asia now needs to be driven from the Gulf, across the Arabian Peninsula, all the way to Jeddah, and then shipped to Port Sudan, making it prohibitively expensive."
Further consequences
In addition to the economic ramifications, Bacci notes that the risk for environmental damages is high as it can come from either sinking vessels carrying crude oil or chemicals or military confrontations in the area.
Vidal adds that the MV Rubymar, the British-owned ship severely damaged by a Houthi attack in late February, will likely cause environmental damage to the surrounding waters and their coral reefs.
Also, he notes that three underwater cables have been cut. While the cause remains unknown, he says, "It is likely related to the current crisis, as the result of either intentional disruption or accidental cutting by damaged ships."
Lastly, Vidal notes that the tension in the region has also exacerbated piracy attacks off the shores of Somalia since November. "While having multiple drivers may have been facilitated by the ongoing crisis," he said.
What actions can be taken?
As the Houthis are carrying out missile and drone attacks against transiting vessels, their operations are defined as military attacks and not as piracy attacks, Bacci explains. "To stop the Houthis from continuing to attack transiting vessels, police operations at sea are useless," he said, adding that, probably, the only effective solution is destroying, based on international humanitarian law, the Houthis’ military capabilities.
He cites Article 51 of the UN Charter, which provides that "states have the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a UN member." However, Bacci adds that the Houthis are technically non-state actors, and countries have different interpretations concerning whether they can use military force in self-defense against non-state actors.
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מפגן כוח של החות'ים
מפגן כוח של החות'ים
Houthi terrorists in Yemen
(Photo: REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah)
He notes that while customary international law might provide more leverage in that direction, the International Court of Justice’s opinions on the point of self-defense against non-state actors are not clearly defined.
Vidal listed international efforts that have attempted to restore security in the region.
He says that the U.S. formed Operation Prosperity Guardian (OPG) in mid-December to defend international shipping from Houthi attacks. Later, it set up Operation Poseidon Archer to conduct strikes against the Houthis.
"These strikes have not been a one-off event," he added. He noted that the U.S. and the U.K., supported by Australia, Bahrain, Canada and the Netherlands, have conducted follow-up strikes almost every 2-3 days since January 12.
The European Union also established a defensive operation known as Operation Aspides in February, with several frigates tasked with protecting merchant vessels and providing maritime awareness, according to Vidal
Finally, he noted that other countries, such as India, have deployed assets independently to assist ships damaged by Houthi attacks and in counter-piracy missions, boarding dozens of suspected vessels and preventing several hijacking attempts in the process.
However, he says, "Despite all these efforts, the shipping industry does not seem to feel reassured, and most shipping companies have continued rerouting their ships via the Cape of Good Hope."
  • The story is written by Debbie Mohnblatt and reprinted with permission from The Media Line
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