Yemen's restive Houthi movement scored a propaganda victory July 25 when it successfully targeted a pair of Saudi Arabian oil tankers transiting the Bab el-Mandeb strait, damaging one and prompting Riyadh to temporarily suspend its oil shipments through the Red Sea chokepoint. The Houthis have periodically fired on ships in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden — including Emirati and U.S. warships — but this was the first time such activity caused a meaningful change in Saudi behavior. The Houthis, who have Iranian backing, have long sought to use the threat to shipping as a means to gain leverage over their militarily superior Saudi and Emirati enemies. The Houthi triumph will be short-lived, however, because the perceived threat to global energy supplies will enable the Saudi-led coalition to posture as the defender of international order, thereby undercutting attempts by the Houthis to turn the diplomatic tables on Riyadh.
The civil war in Yemen threatens a key global trade route through the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, which could affect the ability of the world's major energy suppliers to deliver to their customers. Many governments ride on the legitimacy of global economic growth, so the potential for spikes in energy prices concerns powers both great and small.
For now, though, the Houthis and their supporters in Tehran rest on their laurels. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' Quds Force, claimed that the Red Sea was no longer safe, even with U.S. naval forces nearby. This is not only a slight against America's status as a Middle Eastern aegis but also adds weight to Iran's threats to shut down the Persian Gulf's all-important Strait of Hormuz, a key part of Tehran's defensive strategy against the United States. Given the White House's increasingly hawkish posture when it comes to Iran, and Tehran's limited capacity to respond, shutting off access to the Gulf would be a powerful, if foolhardy, statement.
Saudi Arabia has options to avoid the Bab al Mandab chokepoint, including an east-west pipeline that terminates at Yanbu on the kingdom's Red Sea coast. Saudi Arabia could also charter foreign vessels to transport its oil, but this would raise shipping costs, at least temporarily. U.S. sanctions on Iranian oil will snap back in November, and energy markets are closely watching for supply interruptions or delays.
As Riyadh pursues alternative transport routes, the short-term economic pain will fortify the Saudi-led coalition's case for building international support for increased military action in Yemen. The coalition paused its assault on the crucial port city of al-Hudaydah to allow U.N.-led diplomatic negotiations to continue — and to prepare the joint force, spearheaded mostly by Emirati troops, for what will be a major battle. But threats to the global energy market allow the coalition, which enjoys the tacit approval of the United States, to posture as defenders of international order and undercut the Houthis' diplomatic strength at the negotiating table. That, in turn, will make it easier for the coalition to eventually abandon talks, should they choose, and renew their efforts to end the civil war and defeat the Houthis once and for all.