Analysis: Is the Houthi threat to world order worse than the war on Gaza?

War in Gaza is not a major threat to world peace and international security. This statement may sound cynical, cold, possibly even ill-informed, but it is true. Except for one party outside Gaza that can make it matter to people’s pockets.

On the security level, despite its intensity, cruelty and the number of civilian victims, the war in Gaza is at best a narrow regional affair with just two parties fighting seriously, mainly in the Gaza Strip. It could be argued that the occupied West Bank is increasingly becoming a battlefield but it is still a step below full escalation.

Countries bordering Israel and the Palestinian territory: Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt, are balancing their rhetoric to show they support the Palestinians and their cause, but intend to stay out of the conflict.

That said, Lebanon’s Hezbollah is sparring with Israel on a carefully weighed and limited scale, as are several much smaller groups in Syria, but all of them are demonstrating restraint and unwillingness to allow the fighting in Gaza to flash into a wider regional war. Jordan and Egypt are staying put and it would take a very major escalation to draw them into any kind of armed action.

A boat carries people as a Houthi fighter keeps watch on the deck of the Galaxy Leader cargo ship, seized by the Houthis offshore of the Al-Salif port on the Red Sea in the province of Hodeidah, Yemen, 05 December 2023 (issued 06 December 2023). Yemen's Houthis on 06 December 2023 claimed responsibility for the launch of the barrage of ballistic missiles toward Israel in support of the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip, according to a statement by Houthis spokesman Yahya Saree. The Houthis vowed to continue their efforts to prevent Israeli ships from navigating in the Arabian and Red Seas, in retaliation for Israel's airstrikes on the Gaza Strip. Thousands of Israelis and Palestinians have died since the militant group Hamas launched an unprecedented attack on Israel from the Gaza Strip on 07 October, and the Israeli strikes on the Palestinian enclave which followed it. EPA-EFE/YAHYA ARHAB
A Houthi fighter keeps watch on the deck of the Galaxy Leader cargo ship, seized by the Houthis offshore of the as-Salif port on the Red Sea in the province of Hodeidah, Yemen, December 5, 2023  [Yahya Arhab/EPA-EFE]

More distant powers that have interests and influence in the region, from Saudi Arabia and Turkey to Iran and the United States and a disunited Europe, are also threading cautiously, disinclined to spread the fighting either in intensity or in scope.

On an economic level, the war in Gaza itself doesn’t impact the world economy. Brutal bombing, indiscriminate targeting of unarmed citizens and civilian infrastructure, human suffering, misery, displacement, hunger and disease generate international compassion but, even if it gets worse, it is almost certain that fighting would remain contained to Gaza because business would continue as usual elsewhere.

Unless…

Small but determined

This precarious informal balance of interests might be upset by the actions of a small but determined group: Yemen’s Houthis who endanger shipping through the strategic Bab el-Mandeb between the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean – a narrow passage that is the world’s third-largest choke point for oil shipments after the Straits of Hormuz and Malacca. More than six million barrels pass through it every day, mainly on their way to Europe.

For an average ship travelling at 16 knots (30km/h), passing through Bab el-Mandeb and Suez takes nine days less than going around Africa. It is also cheaper: Maritime experts estimate that the shorter route saves at least 15 percent on transport.

But there are indirect costs: Attacks on maritime traffic increase insurance rates, danger compensations to the crews and other costs.

Thus, while the war in Gaza does not cost citizens of neutral countries anything, the Houthis’ stance in the Red Sea could make prices soar, first that of oil but then almost everything else would follow.

Can the Houthi attacks be stopped? The first step is always diplomacy, but almost no power recognises the Houthis or talks to them, let alone has any sway. The only exception is Iran, which supports the Houthis in principle but it does not control them. Nobody knows their current relations but if Iran indeed does not want the conflict to escalate, then the Houthis might be acting against its better advice. So even Iran may not be able to do much.

Sanctions would not work as various sanctions imposed on Yemen failed to stop the fighting there for the past decade or so.

Attacks on international shipping that escalated with the kidnapping of the Galaxy Leader in November and then culminated in rocket and drone attacks against unarmed commercial cargo ships and heavily armed naval vessels of several countries are nothing new for the Houthis.

People brandish rifles and Palestinian flags during a march to show solidarity with the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip on October 18, 2023, in the Houthi-controlled Yemeni capital Sanaa
People brandish rifles and Palestinian flags during a march in solidarity with the Palestinians of Gaza on October 18, 2023, in the Houthi-controlled Yemeni capital Sanaa [Mohammed Huwais/AFP]

They have a history of attacking ships in the Red Sea. During their conflict with an Arab, Saudi-led coalition, in January 2017, they attacked the frigate Al Madinah using three remote-controlled unmanned explosive boats, forcing the Royal Saudi Navy to withdraw from Yemeni waters.

Encouraged by their success, in May and July 2018, they attacked two huge Saudi oil tankers with (Iranian-built) cruise missiles, similar to those used in recent attacks. Neutral-flagged ships were also attacked in the same period. To complicate matters further, in 2021, Iran and Israel engaged in an undeclared naval conflict in the Red Sea alongside Yemeni shores.

Following the seizure of the Galaxy Leader, the US was reported to be considering designating the Ansar Allah, the official name of the Houthi movement, a “terror group” for involvement in “piracy of a ship in international waters”. But the US trod carefully, reportedly consulting with other countries and deciding to not (yet) make the designation official. There were no reports of any talks with Tehran but they cannot be excluded as Washington certainly did not want to risk pushing the Houthis’ big brother or its proxies like Hezbollah into a full war around Gaza.

INTERACTIVE - US military ships in the Middle East-1701175101

Yet, after the latest missile attacks against commercial ships, Washington is reportedly trying to put together a coalition of 12 nations to counter the Houthi threat to shipping. Warships from at least four nations’ navies: US, France, United Kingdom and Israel are already active in the Red Sea and some have successfully thwarted attacks against themselves and against land targets in Israel.

With a coalition, the number of warships would increase and they could attack targets inside Yemen like launch sites, command facilities and missile storage sites.

Besides ships in the Red Sea, the Houthis continued targeting Israel, undeterred by the lack of tangible results. Israel intercepted a number of long-range missiles, some by land-based antimissile defences, others over the Red Sea south of Eilat by Israeli fighter jets. On at least one occasion, Israel’s most modern plane, the F-35 was used.

Fully aware of the coalition brewing, the Houthis want to prevent it from becoming active and functional. Earlier this month, Mohammed al-Bukhaiti, member of the Houthi political bureau, warned Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that if they joined such a coalition, the Houthis would target their oil rigs and storage facilities. The threat is realistic, both countries’ oil infrastructure is well within range of Houthi missiles.

Any major attack on oil facilities on the Arabian Peninsula would be a clear escalation and a global one at that, as it would push oil prices up and raise insurance rates for international tankers loading along the shores of Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

It would be both paradoxical and cynical if the conflict with so much suffering and destruction that failed to move the world were to escalate through attacks on neutral ships.

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