Red Status in the Red Sea

Parisa Pasandepour
12 Min Read
Red Status in the Red Sea

Red situation in the Red Sea

Crisis in the Red Sea confirms deep divisions in the world

The red situation in the Red Sea has confronted the freedom of movement in the Red Sea with attacks by the Houthis, as well as exposing major gaps that are a clear and identifiable characteristic of the international scene. Freedom of navigation is recognized as one of the most important rights for all countries in the world. However, the crisis in the Red Sea reveals deep divisions and a major disruption of global order.

Three months after the Houthi attacks in Yemen, which are halfway between piracy and maritime terrorism against commercial ships related to Israel and other countries in transit between the Red Sea and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, there is no joint multilateral initiative or even a common political position to serve as a starting point for decision-making on what should be done. This is happening while the missiles and drones of the armed movement in Yemen will have a significant impact on international trade and economy.

Among the countries in the G7 and the southern hemisphere, Iran is the only country that currently has no interest in the Red Sea. In fact, Iran is arming and training the Houthi Ansar Allah, while the consequences of the US and UK’s attack on Houthi military infrastructure on January 11, 2024, have not yet been assessed. It is possible that focusing on the roots of the crisis and the reactions of regional and international actors could be fruitful.

The Yemen crisis has global implications.

The civil war in Yemen has been ongoing for almost 9 years. In January 2015, the Houthi coup d’etat in the north of Sana’a threatened Saudi Arabia. In response, Saudi Arabia intervened with an Arab coalition to counter this coup. The Saudis were under the illusion of an easy victory, but the Houthis, who have been regularly receiving military assistance from Iran, prevented the implementation of Riyadh’s plans through attritional warfare. Since 2016, they have initiated repeated attacks on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, targeting economic and energy facilities, as well as coastal targets, using drones, unmanned boats, and floating mines.

Therefore, Saudi Arabia has decided to change its strategy and initiate direct negotiations with the Houthis for a ceasefire starting in 2022. This is a general overview of the conditions in which this quasi-military group has grown and transformed them from insurgents designated as local actors to regional players supporting Iran, to the extent that they are capable of carrying out complex attacks even against the United Arab Emirates.

Reasons for the Houthis not retreating

For the Gulf monarchies, the Houthis have been a security threat for years. For a long time, Europeans and Americans viewed them only as local actors and considered Yemen as a distant and marginal point. In addition to this description and downplaying of the Yemen war, as many Western analysts and policymakers have done, through misleading simplifications, the proxy war narrative and the Houthis as proxy actors have largely diverted the West from the truth. The Houthis are actually part of the so-called Axis of Resistance, supporters of Iran, but they act very autonomously and primarily fight for their own goals.

The opening of the Red Sea front fulfills Tehran’s regional calculations and allows them to strengthen domestic support and recruit forces, diverting attention from their own economic and social failures. It affirms their position as an anti-Israel and anti-America country, and as the ideal leader for the Palestinian people. Ultimately, it positions them with more power in negotiations with Saudi Arabia, and elevates their status as a celestial supporter of Tehran in the regional context.

For this reason, it is highly unlikely that the US and UK attack will force the Houthis to stop at this stage. After introducing themselves as those who resisted against Saudi Arabia, they now intend to do the same with the United States. They are currently operating within the framework of war. In the event of escalating tensions, this group essentially has little to lose compared to Hezbollah in Lebanon or the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq.

International divisions

Even in the face of the global trade crisis in the Red Sea, the United Nations Security Council has not shown itself to be particularly united. Therefore, on January 10, 2024, one day before the US-UK attack on Yemen, the Security Council adopted Resolution 2722, thanks to the abstaining votes of Russia and China.

This text was provided by the United States, requesting the Houthis to immediately cease attacks and release the Galaxy Leader cargo ship, which has been detained since November 19th along with its crew. China also urged the Houthis to halt attacks on shipping, but afterwards criticized this resolution as ambiguous and emphasized that it could escalate tensions in the region. Meanwhile, India is strengthening its presence in the Arabian Sea to combat piracy, but has not joined the coalition of welfare guardians.

European doubts

Differences within the European Union quickly became apparent. France, Italy, and Spain immediately distanced themselves from the welfare guardians and preferred to continue their operations under the national command of Paris with the naval forces of the European Union in Operation Atlanta Rome, or to not participate in any activities like Madrid.

There are three main reasons for the inclination to move in parallel with the United States: fear of possible retaliation against commercial ships, military resources, and economic costs. As Brussels discusses a potential new mission alongside welfare guards regarding the geographical scope and execution of a new mission, it is important to note that piracy is just one aspect of maritime crises that has been initiated by the Houthis.

Therefore, in addition to Operation Atlanta, the new mission can resemble the European Maritime Awareness in the Strait of Hormuz program, which was organized by some European countries in Abu Dhabi after Iran’s attacks on oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf in 2019. Meanwhile, the use of private security companies by many maritime transport companies is growing.

Understanding the Gulf partners

For Europeans, disorderly behaviors are certainly not a new phenomenon, but it seems that what concerns Americans the most is the distinction between the Gulf partners. The monarchies, except for Bahrain, which is the home of the US Fifth Fleet, officially do not participate in the welfare guardians in order to reduce the risk of retaliation. And most importantly, they have reacted to the Anglo-American attack with very different tones.

Saudi Arabia expressed concerns about the United States, while the United Arab Emirates emphasized the unacceptable threat of the Houthis. Qatar had warned Washington about the use of force, while Oman, which mediates in Yemen, openly condemned the targeted Anglo-American bombing. These positions indicate different foreign policies in the region despite the common concern for maritime safety, which is especially vital and necessary for the Vision project and after oil.

The Red Sea has become a military conflict zone with multiple parties involved.

The lack of a comprehensive multi-dimensional initiative in the Red Sea in the face of the Houthi threat is precisely due to the centrality of this route, which has regained importance in recent years. The Red Sea, located between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, has become a contested area. The polarizing movement of the international system with Russia’s aggression and the systematic competition between the United States and China, along with the erosion of Western influence, has accelerated the process. Initially, it has affected Britain, which used to dominate the Red Sea, and now it is affecting the United States.

Therefore, Middle Eastern and international powers are fiercely competing with each other for the establishment of military bases, for example in Djibouti, to gain advantages in terms of port access and to create maritime and aerial infrastructures in Africa’s Horn, Yemen, and to control islands and coastal cities in Yemen. It is worth mentioning that the collapse of certain institutions in countries like Yemen, Somalia, and Sudan also helps maximize their exploitation.

In fact, it can be said that competition has now turned into militarization, and the multiplication of military interests has not only failed to create security, but has also led to increased conflicts and tensions. There is no quarter in the world that benefits from the security of the Red Sea as much as here. Everything from energy and grains to metals and products passes through this region due to its strategic location connecting to the Indian Ocean, various Asian and African countries, and providing access to the Mediterranean Sea through the Suez Canal.

Although the Red Sea holds great political and economic significance in the region and the world, precisely at this point of connection, the fragmentation of the global puzzle makes finding common solutions impossible. Amidst this, the Houthis are increasingly exerting pressure from the surrounding coasts of Yemen.


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Master's Degree in International Relations from the Faculty of Diplomatic Sciences and International Relations, Genoa, Italy.