Complications of the Houthis’ Role in the Red Sea

Photo of an Iranian anti-ship missile, the type believed to have been used by the Houthis to threaten shipping in the Red Sea.

Saudi planners and their allies made a strategic error when they ignored Red Sea islands controlled by the Houthis and are now used to disrupt operations.

The world was taken aback on July 25, 2018 when the Houthis targeted two Saudi oil tankers moving through the Bab al-Mandab Strait. The attack caused negligible damage, according to the statement by Saudi Aramco, yet prompted Saudi Arabia to suspend the exportation of oil through Bab al-Mandab. The Houthis alleged that they had aimed at a Saudi warship at first, as a response to the Saudis’ aerial targeting of Yemen’s Port of Hodeida, which the Houthis control. It is also possible that the Houthi operation may have been on behalf of and at the prompting of Iran, which is facing American economic pressure and sanctions due to its nuclear program and conduct in the Arab world. It is thus important to ask whether the Houthi attack will be repeated and what capabilities the Houthis may have in the Red Sea while they continue to challenge the legitimate Yemeni government and to control vast areas of the country.

Shipping in Bab al-Mandab: Points of Control

Overlooking the Bab al-Mandab Strait, at its northwestern and southeastern ends, are a number of islands and archipelagos shared by countries along the strait, namely Yemen, Djibouti, and Eritrea. The most important islands and archipelagos are the following:

  1. Dahlak Archipelago and Fatima Island. This archipelago, located on the southwestern corner of the Red Sea and owned by Eritrea, has the biggest impact on shipping in Bab al-Mandab and the Red Sea. It also holds significant influence on regional security principally because it contains a large number of islands that Eritrea is willing to lease to foreign countries, including Iran which needs a secure way of reaching the Red Sea. This is what may have persuaded Saudi Arabia to invite the Eritrean president, Isaias Afwerki, to visit and have a discussion on political, economic, and security issues.
  2. Zuqar Island, the Hanish Islands, and Kamaran Island. This important archipelago is owned by Yemen and located opposite and to the north of the Dahlak Archipelago. In 1996, Eritrea had a dispute with Yemen regarding the ownership of Zuqar and Hanish islands. It was referred for arbitration at the International Court of Justice at the Hague, which adjudicated the ownership of the islands to Yemen. This archipelago and its islands are an important base for the Houthis, enabling them to influence shipping in the Red Sea and the Bab al-Mandab Strait. Saudi planners and their allies made a huge and strategic error in ignoring these areas; although they were easy to control at the beginning of the military operations, they were allowed to fall under the Houthi insurgents’ control.
  3. Perim Island (Mayyun). This island is at the southeastern entrance of the strait and divides the shipping canal in two: the eastern canal, Bab Iskandar, is the least deep and the western canal is the deepest and used for international, commercial, and military sailing on a large scale.
  4. Djibouti’s Seven Brothers Islands (a.k.a. Sawabi Islands). These are a chain of rocky, uninhabited islands in the strait and can be used by irregular forces as points of observation and ambush. It is important to remember that there is a French navy base in Djibouti and that the country hosts the US Africa Command, created in 2007, which covers the African Horn area and much of East Africa.
  5. Socotra Archipelago. Socotra is the largest island in the archipelago with the same name, located in the Gulf of Aden between the Somali coast in the Horn of Africa and the Yemeni coast to the north. It is owned by Yemen. The island was dragged into the Yemeni war recently as a result of the United Arabi Emirates’ attempt to control it, before being compelled to leave due to popular protests and the opposition that the legitimate Yemeni government expressed. The island controls and overlooks oncoming pathways to the Bab al-Mandab Strait on its southeastern end.
  6. The Saudi Farasan Islands. Located on the outskirts of the strait in the southeastern half of the Red Sea, these islands allow Saudi Arabia to regulate the ships passing through the Red Sea.

The Saudi-Iranian Proxy War

The current Yemen war is a proxy war between Iran, represented by the Houthi insurgents, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which turned to an Arab-Islamic alliance in order to end the Houthis’ rebellion in 2015. However, this alliance failed to achieve success; rather, it crumbled due to the Gulf crisis––pitting Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE against Qatar––and the withdrawal of influential countries, particularly Pakistan, on whom Saudi Arabia depended heavily for support. The Houthis were able to threaten even the Saudi capital, Riyadh, with missile attacks, as well as to target most of the air bases and encampments in the western and southwestern areas. Despite Saudi Arabia’s use of missile defense systems in response to each missile fired at the kingdom, it is clear that the Houthis have indeed become a serious challenge to the Saudis, who have failed to contain their threat. Perhaps the Houthis’ success in targeting Saudi oil tankers sailing through Bab al-Mandab toward the Indian Ocean or Europe has increased their strategic power, and potentially Iran’s power. Such attacks have pushed the allied countries to take the Iranian threat seriously, as Iran has strengthened its activities and is now able to block oil exports via the Arabian Gulf, in the case that Iranian oil is prevented from reaching its targets due to American sanctions that were reimposed on August 6, 2018.

Observers who follow the statements of Qassem Soleimani, have noted Tehran’s direct interference in Yemen.

The true object of the Houthis’ attack on the two oil tankers or the Saudi warship that was guarding them was to confuse and annoy Riyadh in all theaters of open operations between the two sides, by land, sea, and air. Observers who follow the statements of Iran’s Quds Force commander, General Qassem Soleimani, have noted Tehran’s direct role. Soleimani controls the dossier of Iranian interventions in the Arab East and the Arabian Peninsula. After the Houthis targeted the Saudi tankers in Bab al-Mandab, he hastened to say outspokenly and threateningly: “The Red Sea which was secure is no longer secure for the presence of American [military] … The Quds Force and I are your match. We don’t go to sleep at night before thinking about you …  You may begin a war, but it is us who will end it.” In other words, Iran can use the Houthis as a tool to strategically pressure Saudi Arabia and its allies, even the United States, to influence their policies toward the Islamic Republic.

On the other hand, the Saudis’ decision to halt oil exportation through Bab al-Mandab, albeit for a brief period, achieved important objectives. First, this decision was taken to call the world’s attention to the impact of Iranian intervention in maritime security in Bab al-Mandab and to the risks to the safety of oil and gas supplies, despite American efforts to protect them. In July, Washington took a firm position toward Iran’s threat to close the Strait of Hormuz; however, the stance regarding the threat to Bab al-Mandab was not strong enough according to the Saudis. Thus, the suspension of oil exports through the strait can be viewed as a Saudi attempt to push the United States to take a similar firm stand with regards to Bab al-Mandab. Thus far the response has been tepid and not as decisive as the firm stance taken by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in response to the Iranian threat to close the Strait of Hormuz during his visit to the United Arab Emirates. Secretary of Defense James Mattis also expressed a similar position.

Second, western countries, whose attitude remains fluid, are accused of halting operations to take back Hodeida by applying intense pressure on the United Arab Emirates. The United States’ position was clear and decisive in requesting that the UAE stop advancing toward Hodeida for humanitarian reasons related to the civilian population. At that time, Yemeni forces supported by the Emirati military had succeeded in reaching the airport before western and American pressure coerced them to halt, which increased Houthi obstinacy. Thus, the stoppage of oil exports through Bab al-Mandab was an attempt by Saudi Arabia to get a green light to advance toward Hodeida, which it has not received so far. The situation is confusing given the purported alliance between the United States and its allies in the Gulf involved in the war in Yemen, a futile war that has had no positive result.

The Houthis and Maritime Safety

In addition to the large impact of Hodeida on the security and safety of maritime traffic through Bab al-Mandab, the Houthis control other ports along the Yemeni coast. One of these is Salif Port located to the north of Hodeida, and the Houthis seem to be clinging to it desperately. Salif’s importance is similar to that of Hodeida. The Houthis’ capabilities, such as armed speedboats, coastal bases to launch land-to-sea missiles, and a good intelligence and information system, allow them to choose the time and place of confrontation and to inflict damage on maritime security, as they did previously when they targeted the two Saudi oil tankers.

The suspension of oil exports through the strait can be viewed as a Saudi attempt to push the US to take a firm stand.

Thus, it is possible for the situation in the strait to deteriorate if the Houthis decide, potentially with instruction or coordination from Iran, to plant mines along the maritime route (the Yemeni navy’s stocks had included mines that the Houthis seized when they took control of Sanaa). It is important to bear in mind that mines were used before the Houthis pulled out of Midi Port near the Saudi border in 2017, as reported by the media and research centers.

At present, now that Saudi ships have resumed through Bab al-Mandab and the Houthis have stopped attacking oil supplies, there appears to be a kind of retreat in Washington’s stand toward Iran. This was clear from Donald Trump’s recent pronouncement that he was ready to negotiate directly with Iran, and from Secretary of State Pompeo’s confirmation that the United States does not seek to overthrow the Iranian regime but to change its behavior. Perhaps that led to the hardening of Houthi and Iranian positions, whereby Supreme Leader Khamenei forbade direct negotiation with Washington. In any case, despite Saudi Arabia’s resumption of oil exports through Bab al-Mandab, the threat continues—unless the Houthis are driven out from the theater of operations in the southern Red Sea. This outcome should have been a major objective for Saudi Arabia when it launched Operation Decisive Storm in March 2015.

Reducing Iran’s Influence

The Yemen civil war and the Houthis’ involvement on behalf of Iran constitute a futile fight whose principal victims are Yemeni civilians. In addition, because of this devastating war, Arab national security has become like a torn sieve, with more holes and cracks than connections. The situation will continue until the Saudis realize the importance of careful planning and until they are able to pressure Iran to retreat. This may push Iran to deal with the many problems that have arisen from its unacceptable expansion toward the Arab East and the Arabian Peninsula.

It is possible for the situation in the strait to deteriorate if the Houthis decide to plant mines along the maritime route.

At the same time, to maintain Arab national security in Bab al-Mandab, a military naval force must be established, one that draws from the Egyptian, Saudi, and Yemeni navies and possibly the Emirati navy. This force should be able to obtain the right of boarding and searching ships; with the declared objective of curtailing Iranian influence in the area. These countries may also exercise joint pressure, combined with economic incentives, on Eritrea to withdraw the privileges that it granted to Iran in the Dahlak Archipelago.

Abdulwahab Al-Qassab is a Visiting Scholar at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Dr. Abdulwahab Al-Qassab and read his previous publications click here