New Red Sea Pirates required a unified international response

Analysis in brief: Ships at sea are as vulnerable to pirate attacks today as they ever were in history. In the Red Sea, the pirates are anti-West militants whose attacks on ships have caused global economic havoc and worrisome environmental harm. Only an international coalition will end the danger.

The cause of the crisis

Never has a small country been able to hold hostage so much of the world and cause such damage to global wealth and the environment as the Houthi militant group that controls much of Yemen, located on the Red Sea, only 762 km from mainland Africa. Because of its dominant control of the country, thus becoming the principal governing force, the country name Yemen is often used in the media to describe the perpetrators of the Red Sea attacks, so that Yemen and Houthi become synonyms. In fact, the Houthi are sponsored by Iran, which seeks to control Yemen, while the runt government of Yemen is supported by Saudi Arabia, which also wishes to rule the country. Thus, the civil war can be seen as a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Like Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Houthi militant group has seen the Israel-Palestine conflict as its excuse to raise its profile in the world. Yemen originally claimed it was only seeking to impede Israeli shipping in an effort to harm that country’s economy when its militants attacked Israeli’s first ship in October 2023. The ruse was quickly exposed when indiscriminate attacks on all vessels using the Red Sea shipping lanes became so virulent that world shippers abandoned the route. This has resulted in global economic harm and environmental damage.

World shipping has returned to the mid-19th century, before the opening of the Suez Canal, due to Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping
Visual courtesy: The Washington Institute

By attacking a relatively few ships, the Houthi rebels have found an inexpensive method to wreak global havoc. Cargo ships and commercial vessels are not armed, as per international law, which makes them easy prey for the Houthi, who use drones and light weapons. The vulnerability of commercial shipping has been exploited for years by West African pirates in the Gulf of Guinea and Somali pirates off the East African coast, who are making a comeback in 2024, inspired by the Houthi shipping attacks.

Shipping in a Perilous Region

The Suez Canal and the Red Sea have long been vulnerable to the effects of regional conflicts. Given the perennial conflict in the Middle East and Red Sea areas, perhaps it was inevitable that the current shipping crisis would strike. Nearly one third of global container trade utilises the Suez Canal. Because of the Houthi attacks on vessels, which was over 60 as of March 2024, thousands of ships have rather chosen to sail around the southern tip of Africa for safety reasons. It is as if the year were 1868, before the Suez Canal opened and drastically shortened the trip from Europe to Asia. The closure of this seaway has resulted in significant environmental damage by contributing to the release of greenhouse gases contributing to Global Warming. Rerouted ships must make trips taking up to five times longer than through the Suez Canal. Environmentalists have calculated that at least five times the amount of carbon is being released into the atmosphere by these ships because of the extra fossil-fuel consumption. This comes at a time when the global shipping industry seeks to lessen its carbon footprint and when the worsening climate change crisis cannot tolerate additional stress.

In terms of world trade, the Houthi have succeeded in disrupting global supply chains with a harmful impact certainly far beyond the militants’ expectations. Shipping costs between Europe and Asia have increased five-fold. These costs will be added onto the costs of the goods being shipped, from industrial inputs to fuel and consumer goods. Businesses and individuals will pay more when they purchase shipped goods, and today’s supply chains ensure that everything is shipped from somewhere. One banking firm estimated that the Red Sea shipping crisis will add 0.7% to global core goods inflation and 0.3% to overall core inflation during the first half of 2024. If the crisis is not resolved, the costs of the Houthi aggression will climb.

Houthi militants in Yemen before a seized commercial container ship on the Red Sea
Image courtesy: The Council on Foreign Relations

In mid-March, Egypt received billions of euros of emergency relief from the European Union, whose member states’ economies rely on Suez Canal shipping. Egypt earned a record US$9.4 billion in revenue from the canal during the 2022-2023 economic year. However, half the 2023-2024 economic year has involved Red Sea shipping disruptions, and the teetering Egyptian economy is not positioned to absorb the shock of curtailed revenues from its most lucrative state enterprise. Revenues have been recorded as being cut in half: The Suez Canal Authority reported that January 2024 revenues were US$425 million, down from US$804 million earned in January 2023.

International Response

Shortly after the Houthi began to attack ships, the UK and US launched military strikes against the militants within Yemen. Although the strikes were successful, UK and US officials were baffled as to why there was no concomitant reduction on Red Sea shipping attacks. This was classic asymmetrical warfare, whereby a small band of mobile rebels flummox large armies, and the Houthi have shown an ability to scatter and regroup as guerillas do. Moreover, the Houthi were able to position themselves as ‘underdogs fighting for the rights of the oppressed’ against the UK and US, whom the Houthi view as imperial oppressors. As long as they trumpeted such propaganda, they have been given a pass by South Africa and other African countries, even though the Houthi are harming African economies, particularly Egypt.

However, in January 2024, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2722, which condemned the Houthi aggression in the Red Sea and asserted the universal right of freedom of navigation, which the Houthi are abrogating. Operation Prosperity Guardian, led by the US and supported by eleven countries’ navies, including one African country (Seychelles), was launched simultaneously with the passage of the UN Resolution. Those countries not directly involved in the coalition are patrolling the Red Sea near Yemen independently. A statement condemning Houthi attacks on shipping has been signed by 24 countries, as a further show of international solidarity. The response of the shipping industry has been ‘wait and see’:

Only an international response will stop Houthi aggression, isolating both the militants and the Iranian regime whose financing and directives initiated the crisis. Normally, the Red Sea crisis would be garnering top media attention worldwide. As it is, the ship attacks are relegated to lesser interest as a side-show to the horrific warfare involving Israel and the Houthi’s fellow terror group Hamas. Perhaps this relative lack of attention is one reason the Yemen militants can continue taking the global economy hostage after six months of aggression.

The critical points:

  • More than 60 ships in the Red Sea have been attacked by Houthi militants, who control a majority of the country of Yemen, significantly curtailing shipping on a route that usually accommodates 33% of the world’s container traffic
  • With ships forced to sail alternative routes five-times longer than using the Suez Canal, shipping prices and fossil-fuel emissions have risen dramatically, causing higher global inflation, severely harming Egypt’s economy and adding to climate change peril
  • Only an international response can curtail the Houthi attacks. A UN resolution accompanied by an international naval coalition has struck back, while other countries are patrolling the Red Sea independently