Francis Moritz

Houthis, the new scarecrow in the Middle East

Things are happening fast in the Red Sea. So much so, that the leaders of the European Union are once again caught off guard. Foreign policy is a long-term exercise, shaped at every hour of the day and night, like the movement of the planets in the cosmos. To ignore it is to arrive permanently a train behind. Israel, the No. 1 target, may well come out the big winner.

Who are the Houthis?

Faced with the Houthi blockade, also known as Ansar Allah (followers of God), the militia founded in the 90s de facto controls most of Yemen. It represents the Zaidi branch of Shiite Islam and makes up around a quarter of the population. The Houthis revolted against the growing influence of Saudi-based Salafism and Wahabism. From 2003 onwards, inspired by the success of the Lebanon-based Hezbollah, which took part in the fighting in Iraq during the American invasion, they won their support as well as that of Teheran, which seized the opportunity to extend its hegemony through this militia. The Houthis claim to have no links with Iran, although they use quantities of equipment of Iranian or North Korean origin. Since 2014, in a civil war that has ravaged the country, their 20,000 or so fighters have opposed the Saudi-backed central government. To date there have been over 350,000 casualties and hundreds of thousands displaced. But clearly neither the UN, the ICC, South Africa nor the EU are aware of this. Otherwise, we have no doubt that they would have intervened. The group controls the key port of Hodeida, which generates around a billion USD p.a. and is their source of funding, in addition to Iranian support.

What are their goals?

Under the pretext of solidarity with the Palestinians, the Houthis have established a blockade of the Red Sea passage as a demonstration of their power. In fact, it’s a power of nuisance and a double provocation against the international community in order to obtain Western and Arab recognition. They are convinced that they have beaten Saudi Arabia in the local conflict and claim that they want to fight head-on against the United States, and the West more generally, to force Saudi Arabia into a long-term ceasefire.

The threat from land and sea

While the Houthis are shooting at anything that sails, the European Union keeps weighing over its options. Germany has proposed the creation of an EU mission, but it doesn’t seem to be going down well. It will probably send its frigate “Hessen” on its own, subject to approval by the Bundestag. On January 3, the container ship “Tage” belonging to the French company CMA CGM was targeted. A dozen countries signed the “warning” addressed to the Houthis, which had no effect.

Egypt is not a signatory, even though it is in the midst of a major economical and social crisis, it is losing income from canal royalties worth some 7.5 billion dollars a year.

What about France

France firstly welcomed the American initiative of December 18, underlining “. any initiative aimed at reinforcing freedom of movement in the Red Sea…. Announced by the United States on December 18”.

The French Minister of defense stressed that the “Languedoc” frigate, which had gone into action to shoot down Houthi drones, would “remain under national command”. Indeed, the Suez Canal route is the one that leads to the French territories of the Pacific, Mayotte, Reunion and therefore the Indian Ocean. These territories already suffer a double penalty due to distance and higher costs than mainland France. This situation will make them even more expensive and substantially increase delivery time.

Denial of reality

At a meeting of the United Nations Security Council in early January, the French representative declared: “Through their actions, the Houthis bear an extremely heavy responsibility for the escalation of tensions in the region, as well as for international stability. It is 15% (12%) of world trade that is directly threatened by the Houthis and those who train and support them.” (But who are we talking about?) For its part, France recalls that States have the right to take appropriate measures to ensure safety at sea, as it did when the frigate Languedoc destroyed drones threatening a French ship on December 9. But it seems not, judging by the protests and injunctions of all those who would forbid the State of Israel to apply them. Matter of fact France has its own interests in Yemen. In a statement released before the ground interventions, John Kirby, the American coordinator, indicated that some of the 12 signatory countries did not want to make their participation public. Are we afraid of the Houthis, or do we not want to show ourselves Washington’s ally ? Teach country has its own truth and higher interests. Having said that, we’ll have to wonder later about the quality of French-Saudi relations and the famous saying “the enemies of my enemies are my friends”. However not confirmed here. The Saudis do not have short memories.

Diplomacy by statements is not very toxic.  Meanwhile, all traffic is diverted, delivery- time doubled and rates as well.

Finally, in view of the US-UK strikes, only 3 of the 27 EU member states supported the US statement: Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands. France, Italy and Spain refused to take part in the strikes or co-sign the decision. Paris does not believe that these strikes can be qualified as self-defense(?). Spain declares that it prefers “peace and dialogue” (?). These comments are fascinating and say a lot about “European sovereignty and a common foreign or defense policy”. We can only understand that when a country, Israel, legitimately defends itself to protect its citizens under constant attacks, when ships are denied international maritime passage, this is not aggression or self-defense.   It’s in the face of danger that you count your friends. Meanwhile, Iran is launching attacks in Iraq, Syria and Pakistan and runs the risk of becoming a target for the Americans and Pakistan in retaliation. What’s more, the Houthis are the declared enemies of the Gulf monarchies, which have everything to fear from this new Tehran affiliate…Paradoxical winner could be  Israel. We have not forgotten General de Gaulle’s embargo during the 1967 war. It accelerated the birth of a powerful Israeli military industry. Israel, the start-up nation, had demonstrated its resilience and creativity. By necessity, the blockade led to a search for other options by land, with the participation of the signatory countries of the Abraham Accords. An Israeli company, Trucknet, based in Eilat, has created an overland corridor using state-of-the-art technology. deliveries are increasing as the Houthis step up their shooting. It enables the delivery of goods from the Gulf States to Israel via Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Even before October 7, the “Land Connectivity by Trucks” project enabled goods to be transported. between the Gulf of Dubai and the Israeli port of Haifa, while considerably reducing costs and delays. At the time, a 14-day journey by sea had been reduced to just four days by land. By September, Trucknet had signed an agreement with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in Manama.”

. “We had no idea there would be a war, but we were planning to improve the land route,” said its boss.

Beyond words, real ties between Israel and Arab countries are taking root.

The Red Sea is becoming a chaos provoked by Iran, which is facing a struggle at the top between the groups sharing power, It is shaking the region’s paradigms without controlling the end result. It will have to pay the price.

About the Author
Former Senior Manager and Director of Companies in major French foreign groups. He has had several professional lives, since the age of 17, which has led him to travel extensively and know in depth many countries, with teh key to the practice of several languages, in contact with populations in Eastern Europe, Germany, Italy, Africa and Asia. He has learned valuable lessons from it, that gives him certain legitimacy and appropriate analysis background.