Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Yemen’s Houthis: From Naval Operations to Peace Talks

As Yemen's Houthis assume a significant strategic role, questions linger about their readiness to facilitate democracy and adhere to the rule of law.

Yemen’s Houthis
A Yemeni man waves a Palestinian flag as he takes part in march to express solidarity with the people of Gaza. MOHAMMED HUWAIS / AFP

Ali Noureddine

This article was translated from Arabic to English

Since the start of Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip in October 2023, the Yemeni Ansar Allah group, also known as the Houthis, has adopted an offensive stance against Israeli interests in the region.

Following multiple attempts to strike southern Israel using drones and long-range missiles, the group swiftly shifted its focus in November 2023 to targeting Israeli ships or those en route to Israel, with the aim of capturing them.

The Houthis: Influential players in regional security

The group has leveraged its control over the eastern shore of the Red Sea to establish influence in regional security calculations and the safeguarding of commercial supply lines. Furthermore, the group is seeking to alter dynamics by limiting Israeli commercial activity in response to the Israeli blockade imposed on the Gaza Strip.

This reality has granted the Houthis a degree of legitimacy in the eyes of the Arab public. Their active role in the Yemeni civil war spanning over nine years has garnered support, both militarily and financially, from Iran. This positioned them against a coalition backed by 11 Arab countries, spearheaded by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

However, the impact of these operations quickly expanded when 8 out of the 10 largest international shipping companies announced a complete cessation of operations in the Red Sea, irrespective of their destinations. Notably, these companies alone contribute to over 61 per cent of global shipping traffic.

Consequently, these companies shifted their shipping lanes to an alternative corridor, circumventing South Africa instead of traversing the Suez Canal toward the Mediterranean Sea. By the start of 2024, this shift resulted in a significant surge in shipping costs between Asia, Europe and the Americas, reaching up to 173 per cent, attributed to prolonged trip durations and limited ship capacities.

While the group repeatedly insists that its targets are limited to ships bound for Israel, aiming to minimize the impact on international trade lines and avoid broadening the scope of opposition, international shipping companies have remained cautious about Red Sea disruptions. They choose to incur additional expenses – up to $1 million per trip – by adopting longer sea routes that circumvent areas under Houthi influence, even for shipping operations unrelated to Israel.

Consequently, Houthi naval operations have emerged as a global trade crisis, diverging from their initial plan of restricting repercussions to Israeli companies.

In response, the BIMCO Association, representing global shipowners, called for international military intervention to safeguard global trade lanes. The United States swiftly issued a statement in December 2023, co-signed by 44 countries, warning the Houthis about the consequences of their operations and holding them “responsible for the repercussions if they persist in threatening lives and the global economy.”

While the U.S. Navy began operations to counter Houthi attacks in the Red Sea region, the U.S. administration sought to legitimize this military intervention by attempting to form an international coalition known as “Operation Guardian of Prosperity.”

Meanwhile, the Houthis increased their influence and strategic significance in the region, irrespective of the impact of their naval activities on the ongoing conflict in the Gaza Strip. At the same time, they evolved into a contentious factor posing a significant threat to Western and international economic interests, particularly in regards to energy supply lines. With more than 20 per cent of the world’s oil supplies traversing the Bab al-Mandab Strait and the Red Sea, major international oil companies, including British Petroleum Corporation, halted oil and gas transportation operations in the region.

It is worth noting that global oil markets were already grappling with disruptions in energy supply chains due to the conflict in Ukraine, ensuing sanctions on oil and gas exports from Russia, and the suspension of Russian gas supplies to Europe. Consequently, these new disruptions have increased the costs associated with transporting energy sources and heightened restrictions on supply chains, rendering Houthi naval operations a challenge to the economies of industrialized countries that rely heavily on oil and liquefied gas supplies.

Consequently, the confrontation that occurred at dawn on Friday, January 12, escalated to the point of targeting infrastructure and facilities controlled by the Houthis in Yemen. A total of 73 airstrikes were carried out by American and Britain aircraft. Despite the significant number of attacks, the impact on human casualties was relatively contained, resulting in the death of five Houthi soldiers with six others injured.

This indicated that the Houthis had expected these raids prior to their execution. Although the human toll was limited, American and British military officials affirmed that the main objective of these airstrikes was to cripple Houthi military capabilities, particularly those responsible for recent naval assaults.

Despite these efforts, the group displayed resilience, as evidenced by their targeting of the “Gibraltar Eagle,” an American container tanker, three days later. The Houthis justified their actions by considering all American and British interests in the region as legitimate targets. In response, U.S. forces initiated a fresh round of targeting, focusing on Houthi ballistic missile bases in a preemptive measure to thwart any potential follow-up attacks.

As a result, the situation in the Red Sea is now susceptible to various escalation scenarios. The true impact of the airstrikes on Houthi military capabilities, specifically their monitoring, manufacturing and drone directing capabilities, remains uncertain and will only be revealed over time. Simultaneously, the upcoming phase is expected to shed light on the European Union’s willingness to deploy a naval force in support of American and British efforts in the Red Sea, a topic currently under discussion in Brussels.

Yemeni peace roadmap

Nonetheless, the heightened tensions involving the Houthis on the international stage have coincided with significant advancements in the peace process at the local Yemeni level.

In December 2023, concurrently with the Houthi naval operations, Hans Grundberg, the special envoy of the U.N. secretary-general to Yemen, declared that the “conflict parties” in Yemen had achieved a series of understandings. These included a comprehensive ceasefire spanning the entire country, along with preparations for initiating an “inclusive political process.”

As outlined in Grundberg’s statement, the U.N.-sponsored political roadmap is expected to include agreements to disburse salaries to public sector employees nationwide, thereby resolving financial divisions in public administrations. It will also involve the resumption of oil exports to bolster the Yemeni public budget, facilitating the provision of services to citizens. Furthermore, the plan aims to lift air and sea restrictions imposed on Sanaa Airport and the port of Hodeidah.

At the same time, the roadmap is slated to address the reopening of roads between various Yemeni governorates, particularly those severed by clashes between conflicting parties. With these measures in place, the Yemeni factions will proceed with the establishment of a new unified Yemeni authority under the guidance of the United Nations.

These developments underscore Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ongoing willingness to engage with the Houthis, irrespective of the security tensions in the Red Sea region. The peace roadmap, overseen by the United Nations and resulting from Houthi negotiations with Yemeni parties supported by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, emerged after months of discussions in Riyadh and Muscat. Importantly, the Yemeni parties couldn’t endorse this roadmap without a clear green light from Saudi Arabia.

The Houthi operations in the Red Sea, bolstering their influence in the region, have significantly increased the armed group’s popular, political and strategic standing. This has empowered them in regional negotiations, just on the brink of the finalization of a peace agreement and preceding political discussions with other Yemeni parties. This strategic move positions the group favorably ahead of any emerging political system in Yemen, especially if it evolves within the current Arab regional context.

Saudi Arabia is committed to the settlement with Iran and the Houthis

The Houthi activities in the Red Sea are unlikely to force bin Salman to abandon the gains achieved through the recent reconciliation with Iran, a move that positively impacted his relationship with the Houthis in Yemen. Bin Salman’s commitment to the international peace settlement with the Houthis, culminating in the announcement of the Yemeni peace roadmap, underscores his continued allegiance to the “Saudi Arabia First” mantra.

This commitment motivates him to prioritize his country’s strategic interests above all else. In this context, bin Salman has no intention of straining ties with the Houthis, even in the face of their heightened confrontations with Western interests in the region.

It’s worth noting that Saudi Arabia’s approach toward the Houthis aligns with bin Salman’s acute focus on internal economic matters that require achieving a minimum level of security. The Kingdom vividly recalls the Houthi drone attacks on Saudi security and economic facilities in recent years, which resulted in significant financial losses. Consequently, Saudi Arabia has unequivocally distanced itself from participating in the U.S.-led military coalition against Houthi naval operations.

Ultimately, the Ansar Allah Houthi group will certainly soon assume a significant strategic role in the region, whether through expected political settlements arising from their involvement in the Yemeni peace process or via naval attacks showcasing their control over regional commercial supply chains. The main question that remains involves the group’s readiness to facilitate democratic transformation in Yemen, allowing for the establishment of a capable, service-oriented state that ensures fundamental services for its citizens.

A formal peace process and political settlement alone will prove insufficient unless the Houthis and other Yemeni militias adhere to the principles of the rule of law and institutional governance, coupled with the provision of basic freedoms and civil rights to the Yemeni populace.

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