Sea Transportation: The Yemen War on the Suez Canal


March 3, 2024: The Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen continue attacking international shipping traveling up the Red Sea to the Suez Canal. This has reduced Suez Canal traffic by nearly 50 percent. Egypt normally collects nearly ten billion dollars a year in transit fees, and recently spent a lot of money deepening the canal. This made it available to larger ships which pay larger transit fees. Since December 2023 Houthi rebels in Yemen have been attacking commercial shipping headed north up the Red Sea to the Suez Canal and vice versa.

Yemen’s Shia rebels, led by the Houthi tribe, have used their large stockpile of Iranian missiles to attack ships moving up the Red Sea, with targeting assistance from their Iranian Quds Force sponsors. This capability developed over the last decade as the rebels launched attacks on more distant targets. The rebels obtained more powerful weapons as well, including Iranian ballistic missiles, which were disassembled so they could be smuggled from Iran to Yemen, where Iranian technicians supervised the missiles being assembled and launched into Saudi Arabia. In the last few years, the rebels have received longer range ballistic missiles fired from northern Yemen across Saudi territory to hit Saudi and UAE oil production facilities on the Persian Gulf coast. The rebels also acquired the reconnaissance capability to accurately fire missiles at ships moving up the Red Sea towards the Suez Canal. This has forced many ships to take the longer and more expensive and time consuming route around the southern tip of Africa. This has always been a potential threat to ships using the Red Sea to reach the Suez Canal. Egypt and Iran are enemies and reducing Suez Canal income is a win for Iran, which supported the Yemen rebels for more than a decade to make such an interdiction possible.

Western nations reacted slowly to this interdiction effort and only recently began attacking Yemen Shia rebel targets with missiles and gunfire from warships as well as air strikes from air bases in the region. Western warships close to the Yemen shore used their defensive weapons to defeat attacks launched from the Yemen coast. The war in Yemen dragged on into 2024 and it is unclear when or if Iran will halt support for the Houthi. Currently, the Houthi avoid firing on Iranian or Chinese cargo ships in the Red Sea. China is a trading partner of Iran, despite the sanctions imposed on Iran.

Before the recent Israeli attacks on Hamas in Gaza and Iran-backed militias in Lebanon, Iran was under widespread internal pressure from Iranians protesting the expensive foreign wars in Syria and Yemen. Despite that, Iran smuggled in more and more weapons. These were not intended for the ongoing Yemen civil war but for use against targets designated by Iran. But then Iran suddenly had its own domestic uprising to deal with. The Iranian religious dictatorship held onto power and supported more violence against real or perceived enemies of Iran, even if they were Iranian citizens protesting the economic losses Iranians have suffered because the religious dictatorship continues supporting foreign wars.

One of those wars was in Yemen. In 2015 Iran admitted it had been quietly supporting the Houthi Shia rebels for a long time but now was doing so openly, and that support was increasing. Many Yemenis trace the current crisis back to the civil war that ended, sort of, in 1994. That war was caused by the fact that, when the British left Yemen in 1967, their former colony in Aden became one of two countries called Yemen. The two Yemen’s finally united in 1990 but another civil war in 1994 was needed to seal the deal. That fix didn't really take and the north and south have been pulling apart ever since. This comes back to the fact that Yemen has always been a region, not a country. Like most of the rest of the Persian Gulf and Horn of Africa region, the normal form of government until the 20th century was wealthier coastal city states nervously coexisting with interior tribes that got by on herding or farming or a little of both plus smuggling and other illicit sidelines. This concept of nationhood is still looked on with some suspicion by many in the region. This is why the most common forms of government are the more familiar ones of antiquity like kingdom, emirate, or modern variation in the form of a hereditary secular dictatorship.

For a long time, the most active Yemeni rebels were the Shia Houthis in the north. The Houthis have always wanted to restore local Shia rule in the traditional Shia tribal territories, led by the local imam, a religious leader who was a Houthi. This arrangement, after surviving more than a thousand years, was ended by the central government in 1962. Yemen also became the new headquarters of AQAP (Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) when Saudi Arabia was no longer safe for these Islamic terrorists after 2007. Then came the even more radical ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and an invading army composed of troops from oil-rich neighbors like Saudi Arabia, which was very upset by Iranian/Houthi missile attacks.

By late 2017 the rebels were slowly losing ground to government forces who, despite Arab coalition air support and about five thousand ground troops, were still dependent on Yemeni Sunni tribal militias to fight the Shia tribesmen on the ground. While the Shia are only a third of the population, they are united while the Sunni tribes are divided over the issue of again splitting the country in two and with no agreement on who would get the few oil fields in central Yemen. Many of the Sunni tribes tolerate or even support AQAP and ISIL. The Iranian smuggling pipeline continued to operate, and the Yemen rebels were able to buy additional weapons from other sources because they received cash from nations or groups hostile to the Arab Gulf state, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The Shia Houthi rebels were from northern Yemen and controlled the Yemen border with Saudi Arabia.

Over the last decade the rebels launched more and more attacks on Saudi targets. After Hamas attacked Israel in October 2023, Iran ordered its Houthi proxy to attack commercial shipping moving past Yemen to reach the Suez Canal. The world has long ignored the Yemen civil war but, now that the Yemen Houthi rebels are interdicting the Suez Canal, there are incentives for some Western nations, in Europe and North America who are most dependent on this trade route, to do something as long as it does not involve acting against Iran who is the real cause of the problem. Warships from several Western nations, as well as air strikes by Western aircraft, are pretending to do something by making demonstration attacks against Yemen’s Houthi. This can’t work so there is a small possibility that someone, most likely Arab states along the Persian Gulf, might send in ground troops. There are problems with that. They tried that before and gave up the effort. On the other hand, a traditional Arab solution for such problems is to hire mercenaries, and the Saudis have in the past hired thousands of Pakistani mercenaries. They could again.

The UAE, a small Persian Gulf oil state, has only 20,000 troops in its military. But in 2015 the UAE sent 3,500 troops to Yemen but by 2020 nearly all these soldiers had been withdrawn. While in Yemen the UAE forces helped organize and improve local Sunni forces in southern Yemen to better deal with the Shia rebel forces in the north. While the Shia rebels have held the traditional Yemen capital of Sanaa in central Yemen, the more numerous Sunni forces in the south use the port of Aden as their capital. Aden and the Red Sea port of Hudaydah, where most of the foreign aid for hungry people in northern Yemen enters.




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