How Much Do the Houthis Threaten Red Sea Shipping?

Nov 26, 2019 | 11:00 GMT

The Red Sea forms the background of this photo taken from the island of Saba in the Al-Zubair archipelago off the coast of Yemen

A view from the island of Saba off the Yemeni coast. Houthi forces control only a small segment of coastal areas of Yemen, limiting the threat they can pose to commercial shipping in the vital waterway.

(DeAgostini/Getty Images)


  • Despite the Houthis' recent hijacking of some vessels near Yemen, the rebel group is unlikely to significantly disrupt most major commercial traffic, like bulk carriers and tankers, through the Red Sea.
  • Nevertheless, smaller vessels like fishing ships or tugboats that stray into waters near Yemen's coast could be at risk of seizure.
  • The lessons the international community learned in countering the threat of Somali piracy will provide an easy template for foreign naval forces to respond to any similar threat from Yemen.

In terms of past hijackings in the wider region, the incident was comparatively small: On Nov. 17, Houthi fighters seized Saudi and South Korean-flagged tugboats, as well as a South Korean drilling rig, near the island of Uqban. And following diplomatic efforts by Riyadh and Seoul, the Houthis released the vessels and their crews on Nov. 20, noting an internal investigation had revealed that the ships only entered Yemeni waters due to "bad weather." Indeed, apart from the seizure highlighting the occasional impact that Yemen's conflict can have on commercial shipping in the Red Sea, the incident does not presage a new age of piracy at the mouth of the Red Sea. While smaller vessels that stray too close to the Houthi-controlled coastline could find themselves in trouble, the rebels' lack of ability -- or even intent -- to target larger commercial traffic in the center of the Red Sea...

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