Escalating Houthi attacks making Red Sea a no-go area for shipping

Big firms are ordering their vessels to reroute around the tip of Africa as Yemen’s Houthis step up missile strikes in response to Israel’s military campaign in Gaza

Despite the formation of a multilateral naval force to protect shipping in the Red Sea, big firms on Tuesday ordered vessels to reroute around the tip of Africa to avoid attacks by Yemeni Houthis who oppose Israel’s military campaign in Gaza.

On Monday, following strikes on two ships, US defence secretary Lloyd Austin announced a 10-member coalition to counter “reckless Houthi attacks” which threaten freedom of navigation and violate international law. Bahrain, Britain, Canada, France, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Seychelles, and Spain have joined the coalition.

Senior Houthi official Mohammed al-Bukhaiti replied on X, formerly Twitter: “Even if America succeeds in mobilising the entire world, our military operations will not stop, no matter the sacrifices it costs us.” He said the Houthis would only cease their attacks if Israel’s “crimes in Gaza stop and food, medicines and fuel are allowed to reach its besieged population”.

More than a dozen firms, including Denmark’s global giant Maersk and BP, have suspended operations in the Red Sea since the Houthis escalated drone and anti-ship ballistic missile strikes against western naval vessels and ships carrying oil, grain and commercial goods bound for the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal and Israel’s Eilat port. The southern route round the Cape of Good Hope adds 10 days to voyages to western European ports and raises insurance and shipping costs.


The Houthis initially responded to Israel’s Gaza campaign by firing ballistic missiles at Eilat, but these were shot down. On November 19th, the Houthis hijacked the Galaxy Leader cargo ship, owned by an Israeli businessman, and began targeting naval and commercial vessels after warning them to avoid the Red Sea. This turned the strategic sea into an additional war front against Israel and its allies, and made the Houthis an international actor popular with Arab masses angered by the Gaza war.

Houthi strikes have globalised the threat to trade. Some 12 per cent of oil, 8 per cent of liquefied natural gas, and one-sixth of world shipping normally uses the Red Sea route.

With limited Iranian support, the Houthis have developed a strong military since 2015, when US-backed Saudi and Emirati forces intervened after the Houthis seized Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, and the north from the corrupt Saudi-sponsored Yemeni government. Supplied with Yemeni army weapons, planes, helicopters and naval ships, the Houthis have driven Emirati troops from Yemen and defeated the Saudis.

The Saudis are engaged in talks, mediated by Oman, to effect withdrawal.

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Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen contributes news from and analysis of the Middle East to The Irish Times