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Business News/ Economy / Explained | Who are Houthi rebels causing Red Sea crisis, what do they want
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Explained | Who are Houthi rebels causing Red Sea crisis, what do they want

Yemen's Houthi group have stepped up their attack on commercial tankers and ships at the southern end of the Red Sea, hampering operations in the key maritime trade route. Who are these Houthi rebels attacking ships in the Red Sea, what do they want? Let's take a deep dive into the crisis:

A Houthi fighter stands on the Galaxy Leader cargo ship in the Red Sea in this photo released November 20, 2023. (via REUTERS)Premium
A Houthi fighter stands on the Galaxy Leader cargo ship in the Red Sea in this photo released November 20, 2023. (via REUTERS)

Yemen's Houthi group have launched attacks, using drones and missiles, on commercial ships at the southern end of the Red Sea. This has prompted many companies to suspend all Red Sea shipping transits. As a consequence, global oil prices continue their rise and the shares of firms transporting everything — from manufactured goods to oil and commodities — are driving up.

But who are these Houthi rebels attacking ships in the Red Sea, what do they want? Let's take a deep dive into the crisis:

Who are Houthi militants?

Houthi rebels are backed by Iran. They seized Yemen's capital, Sanaa, in 2014, launching a grinding war. They are formally known as Ansar Allah, or the “partisans of God." As of now, the Yemeni rebel group controls the west of the country, including its Red Sea coast, the Guardian reported.

In 2015, a Saudi-led coalition tried to restore Yemen’s exiled, internationally recognized government to power. After years of "bloody, inconclusive" fighting against the Saudi-led coalition, a stalemated proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran caused widespread hunger and misery in Yemen, the Associated Press reported. The war killed more than 1,50,000 people, including fighters and civilians.

Since then, Saudi Arabia and the Houthi rebels have done some prisoner swaps. A Houthi delegation was also invited to high-level peace talks in Riyadh in September as part of a wider détente the kingdom has reached with Iran. While they reported “positive results," there is still no permanent peace, the Associated Press reported.

Why are Yemen's Houthi rebels targeting ships?

Iran-backed Houthi militants in Yemen attacked commercial vessels in the Red Sea to show support for the Palestinian militant group Hamas. Israel's military offensive in Hams-ruled Gaza continues since October 7. 

The Houthi group has reportedly vowed to continue operations targeting Israeli ships or vessels headed to Israeli ports. The Houthis stepped up the attacks on November 19, starting with the seizure of the Galaxy Leader.

What do Houthi rebels want?

Houthi military spokesman Brig. General Yahya Saree was quoted by the Associated Press as saying that the group wants to "prevent Israeli ships from navigating the Red Sea (and Gulf of Aden) until the Israeli aggression against our steadfast brothers in the Gaza Strip stops".

According to AFP, the Houthi rebels also vowed to "continue to prevent all ships heading to Israeli ports... from navigating in the Arab and Red Seas" until more food and medicine is allowed into Gaza.

Where Houthi rebels have been targeting exactly?

The Red Sea is the world's main East-West trade route. It lies south of the Suez Canal. Now, the Houthi attacks have made reaching the Suez Canal more perilous. They have disrupted a key trade route that links Europe and North America with Asia via the Suez Canal.

At the southern end of the Red Sea is a narrow strait of water between Djibouti and Yemen: the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. This is the area that the Houthi rebels in Yemen have been targeting, the Guardian explained.

What has happened after Houthi attacks?

1. Recently, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced plans to set up a multinational coalition to safeguard Red Sea shipping called Operation Prosperity Guardian. However, Houthi leader Abdel-Malek al-Houthi warned that the group would start firing missiles at US warships if Washington got more involved in its affairs or targeted Yemen, Reuters reported.

2. A UK-owned ship passing through the Red Sea was reportedly hit by rocket fire, with another agency reporting possible drone activity in the area. The rebels recently claimed to have attacked two "Israeli-linked" vessels in the Red Sea.

3. Following the attacks, some ships have been diverted around the Cape of Good Hope, on the southern tip of Africa. This increased their journey time by up to two weeks. Some have halted operations in the area British energy giant BP halted all shipments of oil and gas through the Red Sea. Besides this, Danish shipping giant Maersk, one of the world's largest shipping companies, said last week it was suspending their vessels' passage through a key Red Sea strait following attacks by Yemeni rebels on merchant ships.

4. Insurance risk premiums for sailing through high-risk areas are also rising.

5. In a recent conversation, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu discussed the need to protect shipping and the global economy from attacks by Iranian-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen, a statement from Netanyahu's office said.

How will consumers be affected?

Oil and fossil gas prices rose after British energy giant BP said it suspended all Red Sea shipping transits. Analysts have maintained that energy costs are likely to rise further if the attacks on vessels continue and more oil companies halt shipments through the Red Sea.

Global oil benchmark Brent hovered near $80 a barrel on Wednesday, December 12, amid jitters over global trade disruption and geopolitical tensions in the Middle East following attacks on ships by Yemen's Iran-aligned Houthi forces in the Red Sea.

Meanwhile, shipping companies have two choices — to face the risk of travelling through the Red Sea and the increased insurance costs that it brings – or divert their vessels, the Guardian reported. Both these choices carry the risk of higher costs and the risk of delays.

How important is the Red Sea

About 8 per cent of the world’s crude transits through the Suez Canal, Bloomberg reported. As much as 8.2 million barrels per day (bpd) of crude oil and oil products traversed the Red Sea over January-November, Reuters reported while citing analytics firm Vortexa.

(With inputs from agencies)

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Published: 20 Dec 2023, 10:26 PM IST
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