The Geostrategic Importance of the Red Sea

What is happening in the Red Sea, and why does it matter?

The security of the world’s naval chokepoints has come under increased scrutiny after the COVID-19 epidemic and the US-China trade dispute. Many strategically important chokepoints are found in the Middle East, such as the Strait of Gibraltar, the Bab al-Mandeb, the Suez Canal, the Bosporus and Dardanelles, and the Strait of Hormuz. One of the most significant maritime routes between Asia and Europe has been the Red Sea route ever since the Suez Canal opened in 1869.   

The Bab al-Mandeb still makes up 12–15% of all cargo ship traffic worldwide. Approximately 60% of China’s maritime exports to Europe pass through the Red Sea. It accounts for around 10-12 % of the world’s sea-born oil shipments and 8 % of liquified natural gas (LNG) trade. The import of LNG through the Suez Canal is essential to Europe’s energy diversification policy in light of the recent Russian-Ukrainian War. Over the past ten years, the Red Sea has seen an increase in geopolitical competition among regional (United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Qatar, and Egypt) and global state actors (such as the US, China, and European countries), as well as non-state players vying for control over the Bab al-Mandeb. There are several fault lines in this region, but three stand out in particular: the rivalry between the US and China; Saudi Arabia and Iran; and Egypt and Ethiopia. This region is home to some notorious security risks, such as the long-running civil wars in nations like Yemen; and piracy, which mostly originated in Somalia.

The Houthi Rebellion and the Yemeni Civil War

Yemen is among the weak states of the broader Middle Eastern region that the Arab Spring left in a civil war situation. One of the worst civil wars in history has claimed the lives of about 400,000 people, left 4 million internally displaced persons, and fled the country in grave humanitarian conditions, including malnutrition. The decision to reorganize the state, including splitting it into six federal regions, was the primary cause of the civil war that broke out in 2014 between the forces of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s (President between 2012 and 2022) internationally recognized central government and the Houthi rebels, who have been primarily controlling the country’s northern region since its establishment.

                  The Houthi movement, which was mostly but not exclusively recruited from the Zaydi (Fiver) Shia community, represents the impoverished and marginalized people in the northern part of the country. The movement took its name after the Houthi tribe, which mainly inhabits the Saada region. The Houthis have been advocating for a Shia renaissance modeled after Lebanon’s Hezbollah and have been antagonistic to both Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi (Sunni) state ideology and Yemen’s state corruption. The Houthi movement’s military wing, Ansar Allah (Helpers of Allah), was quite successful in seizing control of Sanaa, the capital, as well as the northern regions.

                  The Southern Rebel Movement, which seeks to restore the former South Yemen, is one of Yemen’s other rifts. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which opposes the government and the Houthi forces, has recently been actively involved in militancy, primarily in the South and the province of al-Bayda. It has battled the forces of the Islamic State in Yemen in the past years. 

                  Due to the threat the Houthis posed along the border and along the coast of the Red Sea, Saudi Arabia decided to military intervene in 2015 as the leader of an international coalition which included the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan and many others from the region. The operation was intended to safeguard the Red Sea coast while simultaneously fortifying the central administration. The United States initially backed the intervention and provided air support to the coalition, mainly targeting the AQAP forces in Yemen.

                  The Houthi movement initially had little in common with Iran, but Saudi interference and the „regional-supremacy trap“ have brought the rebels closer to Tehran and its „axis of resistance.“ Iran, which has had no traditional interest in the southwest of the Arab Peninsula, took advantage of the Houthi resistance to Saudi Arabia and has sent the Houthis, who periodically engage in combat along the Red Sea coast and along the Saudi Arabian border, a variety of armaments, including anti-ship cruise missiles and ballistic missiles. In recent years, the Houthis have also assaulted locations in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, posing a security risk to those nations.

                  The United States called for an end to hostilities and ignored the immediate security danger posed by the Houthis to the neighboring governments. It specifically condemned Saudi Arabia due to the dire humanitarian situation in Yemen. 

De-escalation and its Limits in Yemen

As part of a more extensive regional normalization process, the Yemeni conflict came to a halt, too. After failing to achieve its objectives in Yemen, Saudi Arabia has decided to negotiate with the Houthis aimed at putting an end to cross-border violence and establishing a six-month truce in April 2022. The temporary lull has failed to address the major fault lines of Yemen, and Riyadh’s exclusive talks with the Houthis inadvertently marginalized the central administration. President Mansur Hadi was replaced by an 8-member Presidential Leadership Council in April 2022, which remains the main executive organ in the country. Four members were appointed by the Saudis, and the other four by the United Arab Emirates. The two Persian Gulf oil monarchies have been at odds with one another during the civil war, which has led to their supporting opposite parties in the fight. While the Saudis support the official government, the Emiratis have pledged their support to the Southern Transitional Council, which has been advocating for South Yemen’s autonomy and/or independence.

                  The Houthis seized the opportunity with the ceasefire, perceiving it as a military triumph in the protracted Yemeni civil war. Although Saudi Arabia has not managed to extend the ceasefire, both parties remained committed to its content, i.e., to put an end to cross-border violence. It does not, however, imply an end to hostilities within Yemen, since new fighting has surfaced in the oil-rich region of Marib and other areas.

Following their military advances in Yemen in 2022 and 2023, the Houthis now control almost 70% of the country’s tax and customs revenue. The Irani-Saudi rapprochement helped the Houthis by allowing them to use the strategically located Hodeida port after the end of its blockade. Nonetheless, the military supremacy of the movement could not be transferred to popular support in the streets of Yemen. 

The Recent Wave of Escalation and the Operation Prosperity Guardian

The Houthis have viewed the crisis between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip as a chance to earn the favor of the Yemeni people by demonstrating their support for the Palestinian cause and opposing the US government’s plan to send more troops into the area, particularly the Red Sea. The movement has been attacking commercial ships traversing the Red Sea since October 7. It increased the security risk and unpredictability of the Red Sea route. In December, major shipping lines announced that they would no longer be using the Suez Canal and would instead circumnavigate Africa, resulting in a lengthier and more expensive voyage. 

Since October 7, Houthis have also begun launching rockets at Israel. Receiving missiles from Yemen, which is 1600 kilometers away, is nothing new for Israel; however, the Jewish State has not responded directly to the military threat. Nevertheless, in December 2023, the United States organized Operation Prosperity Guardian, an international coalition that aims to protect free and safe passage in the Red Sea. Resolution 2722, passed by the UN Security Council on January 10, 2024, called for the Houthis to stop their attacks on the Red Sea immediately. China and Russia were among the three abstentions.  

On 31 December 2023, the United States defended a commercial ship of the Maersk Company against the Houthis, which left ten rebels killed in the military operation. Since then, on January 12, assaults on Houthi military installations in Yemen have been carried out by the US and the UK. Red Sea hostilities were rising at the time of writing. Russia and China denounced the Houthi attacks, and the rebels declared they would not target their ships in the Red Sea. Since Yemen’s unification in 1990, there has been a multilayered war within its borders. Thus, any military action to protect the Red Sea coast would fall short without addressing those fault lines.

Economic Consequences of the Red Sea Conflict

The majority of commercial vessels have terminated their use of the Red Sea route to reach Europe. It means that countries which based their commerce on the Suez Canal, experience a loss of revenue and raising costs. The Israeli port of Eilat has seen an 85 % drop in commercial activities in December 2023. Egypt, which controls the Suez Canal, has experienced a decrease of 40 % of its revenues during the last month. Not to mention European companies and the automobile industry, which have to reschedule their production. The military intervention in itself does not bring the confidence of the companies back. 

Another critical issue is that ports along the African route are not equipped sufficiently to handle a greater volume of commercial ships.

                  Alternative routes to the Suez Canal have also been considered by global and regional actors. For example, since the 1960s, Israel has been preparing the Ben Gurion Canal Project, which will link the Red Sea Port in Eilat with the Mediterranean Sea. As the Gaza crisis continued, discussions over the Canal Project have become more intense. Getting Israel’s natural gas exports to Asia and Europe is one of their top concerns.

                  The India-Middle East Economic Corridor (IMEC), which was just agreed during the G20 meeting in New Delhi in September 2023, is another noteworthy project. It aims to shorten the route via road, rail, and naval infrastructure building between India, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Israel. However, the latest fighting in Gaza calls into question the project’s viability.