Geopolitical tensions in the Red Sea have boiled for nearly three months, driven by Houthi attacks on commercial ships and U.S. airstrikes on Houthi targets, disrupting shipping, forcing major container companies to change routes, raising costs and stressing European and African supply chains.
Analysts have also warned that the current course could make the Red Sea a “battlefield for revenge and counter-revenge,” with unexpected events to possibly trigger major escalations.
CYCLE OF VIOLENCE
Yemen’s Houthi rebels fired several missiles at a U.S. destroyer in the Red Sea on Wednesday, intensifying the two-month crisis that has disrupted global shipping and raised fears of a wider conflict in the region.
The Houthis said they targeted the U.S. destroyer USS Gravely in support of Palestinians in Gaza and in retaliation for the U.S.-led aggression against Yemen. They also declared all U.S. and British warships in the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea as “legitimate” targets, and vowed to block Israeli vessels from passing through the Red Sea until the Gaza siege is lifted.
This was the latest in a series of more than 30 Houthi attacks on ships since late October when the rebels began their campaign to disrupt maritime trade and supply chains in the strategic waterway.
Yaseen Tamimi, a Yemeni political writer and analyst, said the Houthis still have enough firepower to prolong the crisis as airstrikes from the U.S.-led coalition have not significantly impacted the Houthi missile capabilities.
GLOBAL SHIPPING DISRUPTION
Following the outbreak of the crisis, container ships, the main users of the Suez Canal-Bab el Mandeb Strait route, have become the first casualty.
Major shippers like Maersk, MSC, and CMA CGM have switched to the longer Cape of Good Hope route, slashing daily transits by 39 percent and cargo tonnage by 45 percent through the Suez Canal since two months ago, UN Conference on Trade and Development data showed.
Shipping costs per 20-foot equivalent unit from China to Europe have soared, affecting international trade and straining European and African supply chains. Meanwhile, Tesla, Volvo, Suzuki Motors and Michilin have reportedly halted production in Europe temporarily due to component shortages caused by the crisis.
Adding to mounting concerns, Houthi attacks are no longer limited to container ships. As container traffic shifts around the Cape, bulk carriers and oil tankers are more often becoming targets.
The recent strike on the British oil tanker “Marlin Luanda” underscores this new risk, which could hamper oil flows from the Gulf and Indian ports to Europe.
The situation has also hit insurance coverage. Major insurers are said to exclude vessels linked to the United States and Britain from coverage when crossing the Red Sea, according to a report from Bloomberg.
Moreover, underwriters are increasingly asking ships to steer clear of these countries, resulting in logistics and cost challenges.
With companies rushing to import goods before Asian holidays, the Red Sea crisis could worsen existing supply chain problems, Clarkson Securities said in a recent report.
As tensions build up in the Red Sea, a drone attack on a U.S. outpost near the Syria-Jordan border that killed three American soldiers and injured dozens more has further destabilized the already complex situation in the Middle East. The White House blamed Sunday’s attack on Iranian-backed militias.
Vowing to respond, the United States is reportedly preparing retaliatory strikes against Iran and its allies. Iran, in turn, has issued strong warnings, threatening a “decisive” response to any U.S. aggression.
Tamimi warned that the current trajectory could turn the Red Sea into a “battleground for retaliation and counter-retaliation.”
Noting the limited effectiveness of U.S. and British airstrikes against Houthi sites in Yemen, he said they haven’t deterred attacks on commercial shipping. He also criticized the U.S. stance in the Gaza conflict, which he believes has further complicated efforts to end the humanitarian crisis.
In the Red Sea crisis, all parties have said they want to avoid a regional war but shift responsibility for managing the risks to each other, he said, adding that lack of communication and willingness to engage in diplomacy raises concerns about the potential for miscalculation and unintended consequences.