Guarding Prosperity

Tom Stevenson

The Red Sea is usually one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Nearly 30 per cent of maritime container trade, and a significant quantity of oil, passes through the Suez Canal and the Bab al-Mandab. Or it used to, before the Houthis in Yemen began trying to shut it all down last month.

In October, they launched a number of ballistic missiles at Israel. Some were intercepted by Israel’s Hetz missile defence system; others were shot down by US Navy destroyers. But where these attacks failed the Houthis have enjoyed more success in the Red Sea.

The distance between the Red Sea’s jagged coral coasts is relatively narrow. Southbound ships usually keep west and northbound ships stay east, passing closer to Yemen. On 19 November, videos showed Houthi forces boarding and commandeering the Galaxy Leader, a ship flying a Bahaman flag, chartered in Japan and, according to the Houthis, Israeli-owned (though the Israeli authorities said the ship’s owners were British and it had nothing to do with them). The raid was followed by near daily attacks on passing commercial ships.

By mid-December, the world’s four largest shipping companies – MSC, Maersk, CMA CGM and COSCO – had suspended the Red Sea transit. Maersk has decided to reroute all its ships ‘for the foreseeable future’. Some smaller shipping companies have persisted.

The Red Sea has been the main maritime route between the east and west of the old world since the opening of the Suez canal in 1869. In the 19th century, the British Empire built a coaling station and colonial outpost at Aden to control trade between Bombay and London. The alternative is to sail round the Cape of Good Hope, adding thousands of miles to the journey.

The Houthis have made clear their ‘comprehensive blockade in the Red Sea’ is a direct response to Israeli crimes in Gaza. It is also a direct challenge to US naval dominance in the Middle East. Ineffectual missile attacks on a US protectorate were bad enough. Defying American power in the region’s second most important waters (after the Persian Gulf) was bound to provoke a response.

On 18 December, the US and a few allies declared Operation Prosperity Guardian to escort commercial ships through the Red Sea. US forces have been shooting down anti-ship missiles launched by the Houthis. Helicopters from the aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower and the destroyer USS Gravely have seen off small attack boats. The Royal Navy destroyer HMS Diamond shot down a drone. No commercial ship has suffered very serious damage since the start of the operation, but that hasn’t been enough to get the giant shipping companies to return.

The Houthis are often still described as ‘rebels’, a term that might have been appropriate a decade ago but isn’t any longer. In the chaotic aftermath of the 2011 uprisings in Yemen, the Houthis – a composite movement of political, religious and tribal groups from the north of the country – were the qualified victors. They did not win a complete national victory. But by 2014 they were in control of the capital, Sanaa, and most of the densely populated parts of the country except Aden. They have survived a concerted and bloody assault designed to remove them from power, led by Saudi Arabia and backed by Britain and the US. They are the closest thing Yemen has to a government – much closer than the so-called Presidential Leadership Council concocted by the Saudis, which does most of its business out of the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh.

In Britain there have been calls to increase the Royal Navy’s involvement. The Telegraph columnist Tom Sharpe has published five articles calling for the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth to be deployed to the Red Sea, and for ‘offensive strikes into Houthi territory’. The years of brutal war in Yemen, sustained by Britain and the US, with a death toll in the hundreds of thousands, go unmentioned.

On 3 January, the US and UK issued a ‘final warning’ to the Houthis to stop the attacks. The Houthis responded the following day by sending an ‘unmanned explosives-packed surface boat’ into the shipping lanes. Another round of Anglo-American attacks on Yemen has become likely. But the Houthis have already shown they cannot be cowed. Last night they launched what is said to be their biggest attack yet, intercepted by American and British forces. A larger war isn’t getting any less likely.

The Red Sea crisis has revealed the absence not only of purported ‘middle powers’ but also of China. The shipment of manufactured goods from Shanghai to Rotterdam is the emblematic trade route of the modern world. Yet Beijing has issued a single bland pro forma statement, from the deputy director of the information department at the Foreign Ministry, urging ‘all sides’ to play a constructive role. In practice, the situation is left to the flailing violence of the US and its lesser allies.


  • 11 January 2024 at 12:40pm
    Simon Gulliver says:
    Firstly, the "Houthis" official name is Ansar Allah, the western name implies a tribal grouping only - rather than a government as you have described above.

    More importantly, the intent is not to stop "all" shipping but only those ships with Israeli connections (owned or trading with), and even then only while the current siege of Gaza continues. Ships continue to transit who declare that they have no such links, including Chinese shipping lines.

    Countries which do not accept this blockade of Israeli ports, such as the US and UK, continue to make threats and instruct ships not to stop if so ordered by Ansar Allah but their actions so far are so far restricted to defending ships which could be at risk from drone or speedboat attack. Saudi Arabia, which suddenly made peace with the Yemen after finding itself unable to defend its oilfields from drone attack, is not part of the operation. If offensive action is taken by western countries against Yemen then their own ships would also be at risk and there would also be a serious risk of escalation in the region. Missiles capable of shooting down $20,000 drones cost in the region of a million dollars each and only a limited quantity are available on warships without returning to a port for resupply. A full-out confrontation with Ansar Allah would be a risky move.

    Meanwhile the maritime blockade of Gaza by Israel continues with no Western protest.

    • 15 January 2024 at 2:16am
      stettiner says: @ Simon Gulliver
      Allah is the Greatest
      Death to America
      Death to Israel
      Curse the Jews
      Victory to Islam

      "More importantly, the intent is not to stop "all" shipping but only those ships with Israeli connections (owned or trading with), and even then only while the current siege of Gaza continues".

  • 11 January 2024 at 11:29pm
    wse9999 says:
    " a direct challenge to US naval dominance in the Middle East.."
    And the welfare of countries depending on "30 per cent of maritime container trade.."
    At the behest of theocratic Iran in their crusade against Israel.
    Stepped straight from 7th C CE.

  • 15 January 2024 at 8:18am
    Howard Medwell says:
    ... and aren't we all proud to see that Britannia still rules the waves! And thankful that the Leader of His Majesty's Loyal Opposition isn't giving us any Corbynite nonsense about the danger of starting World War Three...