May 25, 2024

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The first fatal attack by Yemen’s Houthi rebels on shipping threatens to further sever a crucial maritime artery for global trade and carries with it risks beyond those just at sea.

Already, the White House is warning that there will be a response to Wednesday’s attack on the Barbados-flagged, Liberian-owned bulk carrier True Confidence in the Gulf of Aden. What that will look like remains unclear, but the U.S. has already launched round after round of airstrikes targeting the Houthis, a rebel group that has held Yemen’s capital since 2014, and more are likely on the way.

However, a wider economic, humanitarian and political impact is looming from the attack. It also further highlights Yemen’s yearslong war, now overshadowed by Israel’s grinding war on Hamas on the Gaza Strip that may reach into the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, raising the danger of worsening regional anger.

High-seas crisis widens

Since the onset of the Houthi attacks, the rebels have framed them as a way to pressure Israel to stop the war, which has killed over 30,700 Palestinians, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry. The war began Oct. 7 with a Hamas attack in Israel that killed about 1,200 people and took 250 others hostage.

But as shippers began avoiding the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, the rebels began attacking ships with tenuous — or no — ties to Israel or the war. Meanwhile, U.S. and coalition warships have shot down any Houthi fire that’s come near them. That’s left the rebels targeting commercial ships whose only protection has been armed guards, barbed-wire fencing and water cannons — good enough to deter pirates, but not an anti-ship ballistic missile.

Wednesday’s attack underlines the danger to those not even involved in the war. The Houthi missile that hit the True Confidence killed two Filipinos and one Vietnamese national.

“We demand the relevant sides stop immediately armed activities for the safety and freedom of navigation on international maritime routes according to international law,” Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Pham Thu Hang said Thursday.

The Iranian-backed Houthis have not acknowledged those deaths and sought to distance themselves from any consequence of their actions.

“We hold America responsible for the repercussions of everything that happens,” Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdulsalam wrote online Thursday.

Another ship sank this past weekend after being abandoned following a Houthi attack.

Aid, economies become casualties

Already, the Houthis have attacked at least one ship carrying aid bound for territory they hold. The Greek-flagged, U.S.-owned bulk carrier Sea Champion, full of grain from Argentina, was bound for Aden and then rebel-held Hodeida when it was hit in February. As hunger stalks the Gaza Strip during the Israel war, so too does it still grip Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country.

“The escalation of the crisis in the Red Sea is likely to worsen the food insecurity situation in Yemen in 2024, exacerbating an already dire humanitarian crisis,” the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization has warned.

Then there are the conflicts gripping East Africa. The World Food Program issued a warning Tuesday regarding its operations in Somalia, saying the shipping crisis is hindering its ability to “maintain its regular flow of humanitarian aid.” In war-torn Sudan, the International Rescue Committee says it has suspended its operations to Port Sudan over hiked costs and other concerns rising from the Houthi attacks.

Then there’s the economic pressure. While Israel has described its economy as so far unaffected, the same can’t be said for neighboring Egypt. Traffic in its Suez Canal linking the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea onward to Europe has dropped by nearly half, according to U.N. figures.

Those shipping fees provide crucial revenue for Egypt’s government, which has allowed the Egyptian pound to rapidly devalue as it reached a deal with the International Monetary Fund to increase its bailout loan from $3 billion to $8 billion. Further economic turmoil could spark unrest in Egypt, less than 15 years on from the 2011 Arab Spring.

Airstrikes may imperil peace talks, empower Houthis

Since beginning its campaign of airstrikes in January, the U.S. military has claimed it destroyed over 100 Houthi missiles, according to an Associated Press analysis of its statements. However, that hasn’t halted the rebels’ ability to launch attacks.

That’s something a Saudi-led coalition fighting the Houthis learned after launching its own campaign against the rebels beginning in 2015 in support of the country’s exiled government. The American strikes so far have been more precise, with only one reported civilian death over dozens of attacks.

But the American involvement has rubbed Saudi Arabia and its main partner, the United Arab Emirates, the wrong way — particularly after President Joe Biden in 2021 came into office and promptly declared that Yemen’s war “has to end.” Both countries have avoided actively taking part in the U.S.-led campaign now targeting the rebels. And Saudi Arabia reached a détente a year ago with Iran it hoped would lead to a peace deal, something that still hasn’t happened.

For the Houthis, the fight against Israel and the U.S. may be everything they’ve wanted. Their Zaydi Shiite group ran a 1,000-year kingdom in Yemen until 1962. Their slogan has long been: “God is the greatest; death to America; death to Israel; curse the Jews; victory to Islam.”

Fighting against two of their archenemies allows the rebels to shore up their own support with Yemen, as well as gain international recognition in an Arab world otherwise enraged by the killing of Palestinians in Israel’s campaign in the Gaza Strip. If fighting there goes into Ramadan, a time in Islam for peace and reflection, it may inspire a further spread of militant violence.

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EDITOR’S NOTE — Jon Gambrell, the news director for the Gulf and Iran for The Associated Press, has reported from each of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, Iran, Yemen and other locations across the Mideast and wider world since joining the AP in 2006.

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