The situation in the southern Red Sea is deteriorating… what to expect?

(To Andrea Mucedola)

What's happening in the Red Sea? Actually this question is not correct, we should ask ourselves why we have arrived at this situation. As we have highlighted several times, the geopolitical importance of the straits, whose freedom is fundamental for global economies and how international maritime commercial traffic crossing the Red Sea enjoys substantial savings both in terms of navigation and insurance times.

The situation in Yemen is unfortunately well known. For years the Houthis, officially known as "Supporters of God" or "Ansar Allah", a Shiite political-religious faction, have been fighting a fratricidal war in western Yemen. Born in the 90s, as a movement to support the rights of the Zaidi and the Houthi tribe (from which the group takes its name), with the death of its founder, Hussein al Houthi at the hands of the Yemeni army, it triggered a civil war that within a few days it quickly brought them to control part of the Yemeni capital, including government buildings and a radio station. In fact, the revolt spread and already in January 2015 the Houthis maintained possession of the capital and other cities such as the important city of Radāʿ, in the al-Bayḍāʾ Governorate, encountering only weak opposition from the legitimate forces. During that turbulent period, news leaked that the Houthis had received substantial aid from Iran, which was interested in disrupting Saudi Arabia's Sunni influence in the region.

In fact, the bloody civil war led to the death of more than 110.000 people, in what was called “the world's worst humanitarian disaster, with millions of people on the brink of famine”. In this context, Houthi actions also began in the Red Sea, intended to initially strike Saudi and then Israeli interests, both with naval mines and then with drones against ships in transit in order to demonstrate their support for Hamas and Hezbollah (both factions pro-Iranian) in their conflict against Israel.

In recent years we had reported the discovery of naval mines laid by the Houthis north of Bāb al-Mandab (ﺑﺎﺏ ﺍﻟﻤﻨﺪﺏ‎, Bāb al-Mandab), the maritime strait that connects the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden and therefore with the of the Indian Ocean.

On both sides of its shores, Djibouti, on the African coast, and Yemen, the extreme country of the Arabian peninsula, face each other, as mentioned. theater of a bloody war whose objectives go beyond the sands of that unfortunate country but become Tehran's coercive tool to attack Saudi dominance in the region.

A Saudi Arabia, among other things, guilty of having moved closer to a certain coexistence with the state of Israel with the Abraham Accords. Saudi authorities have long claimed that the Houthis are using humanitarian corridors to receive Iranian missiles and drones, creating "a threat to regional and international security"; advanced systems that sources believe are being transferred not only to the Houthis (in Yemen) but also to Hezbollah (in Lebanon) and Russia for the war in Ukraine.

In a nutshell, attacks at sea against Saudi targets have now dangerously extended to international traffic and the situation in this last period is taking on a tone that is no longer acceptable, taking on the characteristics of a clear violation of international maritime law. Recently the American Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, after the interceptions by American naval units in the Red Sea of ​​drones and missiles directed towards Israeli territory (but also of possible danger for units in transit), firmly condemned these attacks, considering them a violation of international law that targets innocent sailors and creates a threat to international trade. “The Red Sea is a vital waterway that has been essential to freedom of navigation and an important trade corridor that facilitates international trade. Countries seeking to uphold the fundamental principle of freedom of navigation must come together to meet the challenge posed by this state actor launching ballistic missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) at merchant vessels of many nations legally transiting international waters."

A danger perceived internationally given that the maritime giant Maersk, the Swiss MSC, the French group CMA CGM and the oil company BP have decided to interrupt the transit of their commercial ships through the Red Sea, effectively forcing them to circumnavigate Africa. Last but not least, Evergreen, a large Chinese shipping company, announced that it had temporarily suspended import and export services to Israel until further notice, interrupting travel through the Suez Canal. An enormous damage for all shipping companies but also for Egypt which sees the transit of these ships as an important income for its already weak economy. It wouldn't be the first time and we all remember Gaddafi's mines which for the first time put the West face to face with a situation hitherto considered impossible: a terrorist attack at sea carried out with primitive but extremely effective cost for the intended purposes.

I would like to remind you that annually over 17.000 ships transit through Suez, representing approximately 7,5% of world merchant traffic. The weakness of the Suez Canal, like most restricted waterways, is the possibility of an accidental or intentional blockage of traffic which can cause significant commercial damage. In the event of a blockade of the Red Sea, a reprogramming of the merchant traffic routes would be necessary, forcing the ships to circumnavigate Africa with an increase of 15/20 days on the normal transit (due to 7/8 days of increased navigation and other 8/10 days of waiting and unloading in the ports of destination).

The criticality of the blockade of this waterway was also perceived recently following the grounding of the Ever given which effectively prevented dozens of container ships carrying products ranging from mobile phones to branded items from transit for six days. A long-feared possibility of a blockade of the Red Sea seems to materialize again. 

Returning to the delicate situation, in recent weeks the Houthis have attacked several ships with drones, rockets and in some cases used helicopters to disembark their militants on commercial ships, recently claiming responsibility for launching an attack against two ships , the Swan Atlantic Norwegian-owned and the MSC Clara flying the flag of Panama, using drones. Both ships, according to their spokesmen, were considered to be of Israeli interest and therefore had to be stopped.

The situation is escalating and UKMTO (UK Maritime Trade Operations) has reported an attack on at least one British vessel off the port of Mokha, Yemen.

The US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, visiting Israel, reported that Washington is building a coalition to face the maritime threat generated by the Houthis and that the defense ministers of the region (but not only) have begun talks to be able to agree on possible common actions. In addition to the United States, it would appear that other NATO countries, including Canada, France, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands have said they are ready to consider joint support at sea (joining Task Force 153) with the assistance of other navies in the region including Bahrain and the Seychelles. A joint naval mission called “Prosperity Garden Operation” was therefore established to ensure “freedom of navigation for all countries and strengthen regional security and prosperity”. An urgent and necessary need since, as reiterated by the Dutch Defense Minister Kajsa Ollongren in a twitter on X, “Attacks on ships in the Red Sea undermine freedom of navigation and pose a serious threat to ships and crews…”.

A difficult maritime security operation in which the greatest risks come from the underwater environment due to the presence of mines but also of insidious devices easily adaptable to underwater drones.

The economic effects have already been felt and London's marine insurance market has expanded the area of ​​the Red Sea it deems high risk amid increased attacks on commercial vessels. Higher insurance costs lead to higher costs for shipowners and additional costs for consumer products.

A situation that underlines once again how everyone's future and prosperity continues to be played out on the sea.

Photo: web / الاعلام الحربي /

(article originally published on