The threat of Houthi attacks in the Red Sea: the possible global repercussions

Yemen’s Houthi rebels have stepped up attacks on ships crossing the Red Sea, an important global trade artery, raising concerns about the impact on the flow of oil, grain and consumer goods.

By Martina Biral

Houthi response to the relentless conflict in Gaza

The intensification of the conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip has set off a violent reaction from Houthi rebels. The pro-Iranian militia allied with Hamas, that following the 2015 rebellion and conquest of the capital Sanaa now controls significant portions of Yemen’s northwest territories, has recently intensified the attacks towards commercial ships transiting the Red Sea. The firing of Yemeni missiles into Israeli territory and the seizure of the Israeli-owned Galaxy Leader cargo ship in November have further heightened tensions. This alarming situation raises the specter of a new front emerging, potentially leading to the de facto regionalization of the conflict.
On Tuesday, November 14, the spokesperson for the group, Mohammed Abdel-Salam, declared the militia’s readiness to target any ship, regardless of nationality, heading for Israel through the Red Sea. Emphasizing their capacity to launch attacks every 12 hours, Abdel-Salam portrayed these actions as a forceful stance in support of the Palestinian cause. [1] The militants underscored their commitment to ongoing operations as long as Israel continues its offensive in Gaza.

According to the Pentagon, the Houthis have launched over 100 attacks to date, specifically targeting 10 merchant vessels. The strategic objective behind these assaults is to impede access to the Red Sea, potentially affecting at least 10 % of global trade. [2] This scenario appears increasingly likely, given the Houthis’ elevated level of sophistication and their expanding offensive and transnational coordination capabilities.

The targeted area

The Houthis have specifically targeted the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a vital maritime chokepoint situated between the Horn of Africa and the Middle East. This strategic passage is a linchpin for the transportation of goods between Asia and Europe, linking the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea. Accounting for 12 % of world trade and facilitating the movement of 30 % of global containers, [3] the Bab el-Mandeb Strait holds immense significance for container ships, consumer goods exports, and the shipment of oil and natural gas from the Persian Gulf.

Given that a substantial portion of hydrocarbons traverses this critical waterway en route to Europe or North America, the impact of disruptions in the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb is profound. The centrality of the Suez Canal was starkly underscored in March 2021 when the container ship Ever Given became stranded there for six days, leading to far-reaching consequences and crippling approximately $9.6 billion of world trade per day. [4] These figures provide a glimpse into the potential repercussions that the current situation could unleash on the global economic landscape.

The Strait of Bab el-Mandeb stands as a strategic “choke point,” the blockade of which would disrupt vital maritime connections between Europe and the East, relegating the Mediterranean to the periphery and compelling trade routes to take the longer circumnavigation around the Cape of Good Hope.

The International Chamber of Shipping (ICS) has emphatically voiced its stance on the issue, denouncing the ongoing attacks as a blatant violation of international law. Legally, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait qualifies as an international strait due to its critical role in navigation, falling under the straits regime. It meets the geographical criterion by linking the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, and it satisfies the alternative geographical criterion by connecting the high seas of the Gulf of Aden to the territorial sea of foreign states, including Egypt, the Yemen Arab Republic, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Israel.

In accordance with Article 38 of the 1982 Convention of the Law of the Sea, the “transit passage” regime is applicable in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. [5] This guarantees freedom of navigation and overflight, a provision that cannot be suspended under international law.

This regime extends its protective umbrella over trading and warships of all nations, ensuring their rights in both peacetime and during situations of status mixtus, and even in times of war. Consequently, the 1958 Geneva Convention on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone, which codifies the customary regime of straits, is applicable. Notably, Article 16 (4) of the Convention explicitly stipulates that “the innocent passage of foreign ships through straits used for international navigation between one part of the high seas and another part of the high seas or territorial sea of a foreign State shall not be suspended.” [6]

In this regard it should be noted that the United States signed a Memorandum of Agreement with Israel in 1975, which is non-binding but clearly expresses the intentions of the parties. This memorandum appears to have remained unchanged for the U.S. that confirms its commitment to the defense of freedom of transit through the Straits. The document states, “In accordance with the principle of freedom of navigation on the high seas and free and unimpeded passage through and over the straits connecting international waters, the U.S. Government considers the Strait of Bab el Mandeb and the Strait of Gibraltar as international waterways. It will support Israel’s right to free and unimpeded passage through these straits. Likewise, the U.S. Government recognizes Israel’s right to freedom of overflight over the Red Sea and those Straits and will diplomatically support the exercise of the same right.” [7]

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The exodus of global trade giants

Following the recent attacks, major global freight companies are taking decisive measures, leading to the suspension of their voyages. Danish industry leader Maersk, commanding a significant 14.8 % share of world trade, has ceased its operations in the aftermath of the attack on the Al Jasrah ship. [8] Germany’s Hapag-Lloyd, overseeing approximately 7 % of the world’s container ship fleet, [9] has likewise made the decision to halt operations. Switzerland’s MSC, the largest global shipping company, joined the ranks after attacks on the Platinum and Alanya ships. The third-largest global container company, the French giant Cma Cgm, has announced a similar move.

These decisions collectively result in the effective disruption of routes between Asia and Europe. With companies redirecting numerous ships to the Cape of Good Hope, the global economy is experiencing severe repercussions, underscoring the profound impact of these security threats on the intricate network of international trade.

Noam Raydan, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has highlighted the significant impact of these disruptions on maritime voyages. The extended voyages, now projected to take around 31 days instead of the previous 19, depending on the ship’s speed, result in increased costs and significant delays. The anticipated loss is staggering, with estimates reaching up to $60 billion per week.

Notably, the attacks have not spared oil tankers, including the Ardmore Encounter and Swan Atlantic. As a consequence, the escalating security concerns have compelled oil giant BP to suspend its oil shipments through the Red Sea. These precautionary measures have already led to a notable 30 % surge in crude oil prices, surpassing the $79 per barrel mark. [10] The reverberations of these developments are rippling through global markets, signaling potential challenges for both the shipping industry and the broader economic landscape.

States set to work to seek possible solution

Economically, the conflict in Gaza, while tragically causing human suffering and displacement, does not exert a direct impact on the global economy. The international community, while expressing sympathy for the brutal and indiscriminate attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure, is focusing more on the shipping situation, particularly the recent Houthi attacks in the Red Sea.

At present, the primary concern of nations lies in the destabilizing potential of these attacks and the potential repercussions on global trade and international relations. Countries bordering Israel and the Palestinian territory, including Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt, are adopting a cautious stance. While expressing support for the Palestinians, these nations aim to navigate the conflict carefully, seeking to avoid direct involvement and the associated risks to regional stability. The shifting dynamics in the region are prompting a recalibration of diplomatic and strategic considerations among neighboring states, reflecting the broader global concern over the impact of maritime disruptions on international commerce.
The Houthi attacks are introducing a destabilizing factor into the delicate political balance, especially for the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia. Both nations exercise caution, particularly Saudi Arabia, which, while previously engaged in a protracted conflict with the Houthis, has recently sought a process of rapprochement. It’s noteworthy that a significant Houthi attack in 2019 temporarily disrupted half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production, highlighting the militias’ formidable military capabilities.

The United States, counted among the Houthis’ principal adversaries, is signaling readiness to implement an integrated deterrence response. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced the formation of an air-sea coalition named Operation Prosperity Guardian following virtual discussions involving representatives from 43 countries, the European Union, and NATO. This coalition, backed by nations including Britain, Bahrain, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Norway, Italy, and the Seychelles, [11] aims to function as a multinational component of Task Force 153, established in April 2022 to ensure maritime security in the Red Sea, Bab al-Mandeb, and the Gulf of Aden. [12]
In response to these developments, the Yemeni rebel leader swiftly asserted, “even if America mobilizes the whole world, our military operations will not stop, whatever the sacrifice it will cost us.”[13]


1[] Ansa, Gli Houthi avvertono: ‘Attaccheremo ogni 12 ore le navi in transito’, 19 December 2023.
2[] Politico, How Houthi rebels are threatening global trade nexus on Red Sea, 19 December 2023.
3[] World2Invest, Nuovi venti di guerra: le implicazioni economiche del blocco del canale di Suez, 18 December, 2023.
4[] AGI, Il Canale di Suez resta bloccato, si stima una perdita di 9,6 miliardi al giorno, 25 March 2021.
5[] Art. 38 of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea, 14 November 1994.
6[] Art. 16(4) della Convenzione sul Mare Territoriale e la Zona Contigua, 25 April 1958.
7[] AnalisiDifesa, La crisi del Mar Rosso e la protezione degli interessi italiani, 17 December 2023.
8[] CNBC, MSC, the world’s largest shipping carrier, joins shipping giants Hapag-Lloyd and Maersk in Red Sea travel pause amid attacks, 15 December 2023.
9[] Ibidem 
10[] Traderlink, Aumento del prezzo del petrolio, attenzione alla crisi nel Mar Rosso, 19 December 2023.
11[] US Department of Defense, Statement from Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III on Ensuring Freedom of Navigation in the Red Sea, 18 December, 2023.
12[] Combined Maritime Forces, CTF 153: Red Sea Maritime Security,
13[] Euronews, Mar Rosso, non si passa: i ribelli Houthi minacciano nuovi attacchi, 19 December 2023.

Photo: The threat of Houthi attacks in the Red Sea: the possible global repercussions