With a series of drone and missile attacks targeting Israel and international shipping in the Red Sea, the Houthis seem to have succeeded in their long-held ambition to exercise regional power. The scale and impact of Houthi operations seems to have surprised some observers, who still tend to dismiss the group despite its survival through almost a decade of war against a US-backed Saudi and UAE military campaign.
It’s hard to deny that Houthi operations are gaining them plaudits across the Arab and Muslim world. While it’s not surprising that the authorities in Sana’a can mobilize thousands of people for weekly demonstrations in solidarity with Gaza, even domestic adversaries are praising the group. As one senior pro-government military commander recently said in private, “We should bury differences for the sake of Palestine.” For the Houthis, this is a golden opportunity to capitalize on widespread support for the Palestinian cause to raise their flagging popularity inside territories under their control, while pressing their case to the outside world that they are the only effective authority in Yemen.
Israeli media now describes Yemen as a ‘third front,’ along with ongoing clashes with Hezbollah in the north, and the southern front in Gaza. With the army mobilized and communities along the northern border evacuated, the Israeli economy could shrink by as much as 15 percent in the fourth quarter. Part of this is due to the rerouting of cargo ships to avoid the Red Sea and increased maritime insurance costs. All major global shipping and logistics companies have now suspended activity in the waterway, which along with the Suez Canal accounts for at least 30 percent of all container traffic, causing delays and bottlenecks that are set to disrupt supply chains and inflate commodity prices around the world, just as the global economy recovers from the effects of the Ukraine war and the pandemic.
Western powers are particularly concerned about the global economic ramifications of Houthi operations in the Red Sea, and a military response could be in the offing. It would be wrong to take the US-led coalition to safeguard Red Sea shipping “Operation Prosperity Guardian” as a sign of unwillingness to confront the Houthis. Despite touting the formation of a global alliance of at least 20 countries to confront the group, Washington appeared only to bring in its closest Western allies and Bahrain, as Saudi Arabia and the UAE opted out, at least formally, though it is possible they are among at least eight countries that have declined to be named publicly. But the pressure within the DC Beltway to take military action is intense. The Houthis are seen as having gone too far, US prestige as the self-declared guardian of a “rules-based order” is on the line, and the Israelis are openly threatening to act unilaterally if no one does anything.
It’s already possible to discern the outlines of a new approach to Yemen, even within the parameters of the much anticipated Saudi-Houthi deal. The United States seems to have turned a page and is now prepared to countenance closer cooperation with factions in the internationally recognized government. US Special Envoy to Yemen Tim Lenderking has already met leaders of the Southern Transitional Council to discuss maritime security in the Gulf of Aden, and Presidential Leadership Council member Tareq Saleh and his National Resistance forces have raised their profile as protectors of the Bab al-Mandab Strait from their Red Sea base of Al-Makha. In the medium to long term, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the United States could gradually increase arms supplies to anti-Houthi forces, with a view to checking the Houthis’ ability to make further territorial gains, especially in coastal areas, and limiting their access to Iranian weaponry and technical expertise..
Publicly at least, the Houthis have seemed unfazed by the saber-rattling. Officials have vowed to continue the attacks until the Gaza offensive ends and have even threatened retaliation against US warships, which could have ominous implications for the deescalation of the past year and a Saudi-Houthi deal that is close to completion. “The Americans shouldn’t think they can conduct attacks here or there and then send intermediaries to calm the situation down,” Houthi leader Abdelmalek al-Houthi warned. The pause in major hostilities since April 2022 has given ordinary Yemenis breathing space and hope for an end to their tragedy after nearly a decade of war. It would be a cruel blow if Houthi bravado over Gaza – as popular as it may be – allows movement toward peace in Yemen to dissipate. The longer maritime tensions continue, the more risk there is of deterioration in Houthi detente with Saudi Arabia and the UAE – there have already been public threats against Abu Dhabi. And it shouldn’t be forgotten that the hit to global trade affects Yemen too. Restricted access to Yemen will only make it more difficult for international aid agencies to operate and increase the price of basic goods. Western powers need to think long and hard about the impact of military and economic measures, which might seem attractive as immediate responses, but only hurt Yemen and the region in the long run.
Most of all, the conflict in Gaza needs to end for the sake of regional stability and to allow efforts to end the war in Yemen to move forward. The current conflict dramatically underscores the need for a comprehensive resolution of the Palestinian issue in accordance with international law and UN resolutions. Without a just and lasting peace, the region will see only further instability and violence.