Bab el-Mandeb | A strategic choke point

Houthi attacks on tankers passing through the narrow Strait has disrupted one of the busiest global shipping lanes, dragging the U.S. deeper into the conflict

Updated - December 24, 2023 01:51 pm IST

Published - December 24, 2023 04:31 am IST

When the Israel-Hamas war broke out on October 7, many feared Hezbollah, the powerful Shia militia in Lebanon, would escalate the war by opening a second front. The Lebanese-Israeli border has remained tense since then with occasional flare-ups, but both Hezbollah and Israel have been careful not to trigger an all-out war. While Israel stayed focused on Gaza, with one of the most intense aerial and ground campaigns in recent history, hundreds of kilometres from Israel border, another non-state actor widened the conflict, turning the Red Sea into a battlefield.

Ansar Allah of Yemen, better known as the Houthis, after their late leaders Badr al-Din al-Houthi and Hussein al-Houthi, first declared war against Israel, in solidarity with the Palestinians. They fired drones and ballistic missiles towards Israel, all of them shot down either by U.S. war ships or Israeli defence missiles. In late November, the Houthis, who are directly backed by Iran, changed their tactics from targeting Israel to attacking commercial ships passing through the Red Sea. Initially they said they would attack only Israel-flagged ships, but later they said all ships would be targeted.

Also Read: Who are Yemen’s Houthis?

What makes Houthi actions a direct threat to global shipping is that they can target vessels passing through the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb, which links the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. There were 37 incidents involving tankers from November 19 to December 18, most of which were around Bab el-Mandeb, according to Ambrey Analytics, a risk management firm. The Houthi actions forced some of the world’s top shipping companies, including Maersk, Hapag-Lloyd and MSC, to suspend trading on the Red Sea routes. Traffic through the Red Sea has dropped by some 35% in recent weeks, increasing shipping and insurance costs.

Bab el-Mandeb, which is just 29-km wide at its narrowest point, is a strategically important strait given its location. It separates the Arabian Peninsula from East Africa. The Red Sea opens into the Gulf of Aden, which joins the Arabian Sea and then the Indian Ocean, through Bab el-Mandeb. Throughout the 19th and until the mid-20th century, Britain offered protection to these shipping routes through its control of the island of Perim (Mayyum) in the Strait. In 1967, the island became part of South Yemen, and after Yemen’s unification in 1990, it came under the control of Sana’a, the capital of the united country.

Houthi takeover

The Houthis, who captured Sana’a in 2015, came close to Bab el-Mandeb after their takeover of the port of Hodeidah, which is some 250 km north of the Strait. Now, the Houthis, who have drones, short range rockets and even ballistic missiles, mostly supplied by Iran, can target any vessel passing through the Strait.

The Houthi attacks have hit Israel badly as traffic through its southern port of Eilat in the Gulf of Aqaba has come to a halt. But more importantly, the attacks affect global trade, as roughly 12% of global seaborne trade go through the Strait. As Houthi attacks raised security concerns, shipping companies have rerouted traffic around Africa (the Cape of Good Hope). But if the distance from Singapore, a major Asian shipping hub, to Rotterdam, the largest seaport in Europe, is 8,301 nautical miles, the route around the Cape is 11,758 nautical miles. If a round trip through the Red Sea takes 34 days, the Cape route takes 43 days. So if the Red Sea traffic is disrupted for a longer period, it will enhance the inflationary pressure on the global economy.

Also Read | How Red Sea attacks could affect the seaborne transport of oil, gas cargoes

The U.S. has formed a naval task force to counter the Houthi threat. But all Red Sea countries, including Egypt whose Suez revenue has taken a hit as traffic dropped, decided to stay out of it, which shows the Arab world’s anger towards the Biden administration’s unconditional support for Israel’s bombing of Gaza. But the U.S. and its allies have pledged more naval resources to protect the shipping lanes. The U.S. also has not ruled out taking offensive measures, including bombing Houthi targets. But Houthis, who survived years of Saudi bombing, say they will continue to target tankers as long as Israel’s war on Gaza continues.

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