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Meszár Tárik
Eurasia Center of John von Neumann University; MCC PhD Program

The Houthi militia is a growing problem

The Yemeni Houthi militia has carried out drone and missile attacks on cargo ships in the Red Sea, prompting many of the world’s largest shipping companies to announce that they would avoid the area.

Beginning of the offensives on the Red Sea

The attacks began after the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas on 7 October 2023. The Houthis have declared their support for Hamas and said they will attack any ship sailing to Israel until Israel lifts its siege of Gaza. However, it is not yet clear whether all the ships attacked were actually on their way to Israel.

The rebel group hijacked an Israeli cargo ship in November and then attacked several merchant ships with drones and ballistic missiles. In response, the United States launched an international naval operation to protect the ships, which was joined by the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Bahrain, Norway and Spain.

However, China is not participating in the US-initiated operation against Houthi’s attacks on ships transiting the Red Sea. For this reason, many have accused China of being interested in maintaining chaos and diminishing US hegemony in the Middle East, which is belied by the fact that the inflation caused by the supply disruptions is also significantly affecting the Global South.

Rather, Washington accuses Iran of being involved in planning operations against merchant ships, although it cannot provide any clear evidence of this. The only thing that can be said about Iran’s involvement is that the Houthi’s have already stated several occasions that they – together with Hamas and Hezbollah – are part of the Iran-led “Axis of Resistance” against Israel, the United States and the entire West.

The pirates also went into action

In recent years, experts have repeatedly warned that piracy in the region could flare up again at any time. There have been no major incidents involving Somali pirates for six years, but last week we again witnessed the activation of criminal groups when two smaller vessels were hijacked in the Red Sea, adding to the confusion on one of the world’s busiest shipping routes. A few days ago, Somali pirates hijacked the Malta-registered cargo ship MV Reun from motorboats off the coast of Puntland and took 18 crew members hostage. According to sources, ransom negotiations are currently underway with the ship’s owners. Such attacks clearly increase the pressure on international shipping companies.

The global supply chain is also affected

The Red Sea is one of the most important arteries of international trade. Around 12% of global trade passes through this route, carrying billions of dollars worth of goods and around 30% of global container traffic. A number of major shipping companies – seven of the ten largest shipping companies, including Maersk and BP – have decided to stop transporting goods through this corridor. Some companies are using a new route that leads southwards, across the Indian Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa and along the west coast of Africa. This can add up to two weeks to the delivery time and increase transport costs by more than $1 million. Ultimately, the extra time and costs increase the price of energy sources (such as oil) and the availability of goods. Regarding the latter, IKEA, for example, has already indicated that there could be shortages of some products in the near future.

Who are the Houthis?

The Houthis are a Shiite Zaidi group. Their slogan says a lot about their ideology: “God Is the Greatest, Death to America, Death to Israel, A Curse Upon the Jews, Victory to Islam”. They are allied with Iran and receive material and technical support from the Persian country, although unlike Hezbollah, Iran is less able to control the Houthis’ decision-making. In their case, the door to the top leadership is closed to all but the most senior members of the organisation.

Since 2014, the Houthi rebels have been waging a civil war against the Yemeni government, which is supported by a coalition of Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. According to the United Nations, 377,000 people were killed and four million displaced in this war by the beginning of 2022. 60% of the deaths were caused by indirect effects such as lack of clean drinking water, hunger and disease, which suggests that 150,000 people died directly as a result of the fighting.

Who supports the Houthi rebels?

The Houthi rebels are modelled on the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah. According to the Combating Terrorism Centre, an American research institute, they have been supplied with extensive military know-how and training by Hezbollah since 2014. As mentioned above, the Houthis also consider Iran to be their ally, as Saudi Arabia is their common enemy (although relations between the latter two states have improved following the Saudi-Iranian normalisation brought about by China).

Iran is suspected of supplying the Houthi rebels with weapons, and the United States claims that Iranian intelligence is doing everything in its power to enable the Houthis to attack the ships. We know that Iran was “deeply involved in planning the operations against commercial vessels in the Red Sea,” said White House national security spokeswoman Adrienne Watson, explaining that the Persian country is financially supporting the Houthis’ destabilising actions in the region. Iran, on the other hand, denies having been involved in the attacks in the Red Sea.

Could the assassination of a high-ranking Iranian official lead to an escalation of the Middle East crisis?

Reza Mousavi, a high-ranking commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), was killed in an airstrike allegedly carried out by Israel on Syrian territory. Mousavi’s duties included overseeing logistical transfers between Iran, Syria and Lebanon and handling financial transactions from Iran to Syria, including payments to Hezbollah members. However, it is unlikely that this will lead to a serious escalation between Iran and Israel. Israel is committed to indirect confrontation and is likely to attack Iran-related targets in Syria and elsewhere, but will avoid direct military operations in Iran to avoid escalation. And it remains likely that Iran is trying to weaken Israel through the militias it supports. This scenario could go on for a long time.

About the Author
Since September 2020, I have been a PhD student of the Arabic Studies program of the Doctoral School of Linguistics at Eötvös Loránd University. From March 2021 I am a researcher at the Eurasia Center of John von Neumann University, and from September 2021 I am a participant in the Mathias Corvinus Collegium PhD Program and a researcher at the Migration Research Institute, where I study the situation of ethnic and religious minorities in the Middle East, mainly Iraq and Egypt. I also deal with the Arabic language and its dialects, as well as the international relations of the Arab world and its role in the world economy.
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