The war in Gaza has expanded to include a new and dangerous flashpoint: the Red Sea. In recent weeks, Yemen’s Houthis have targeted commercial ships with tenuous ties with Israel, in support of Hamas. The US and the UK have retaliated by bombing a number of Houthis’ targets in Yemen. ResetDOC interviewed Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, about the stakes for the Houthis and the risks of a wider high-intensity conflict.
Why did the Houthis start targeting Western ships in the Red Sea? And how do these strikes, which have provoked a US-UK response, affect Gulf States such as Saudi Arabia, at war with the Houthis?
This is all part of/a spillover of the Gaza war because if the war had not happened, these naval attacks would not have happened under these circumstances and at this time. It is an opportunity for the Houthis, on the one hand, and their Iranian backers or friends, on the other, to make different points and pursue different goals, in parallel. First of all, the Houthis are closer to the Iranians than we realized and more eager to be part of the so-called “Axis of Resistance“, the network of militia groups in the Arab world led by the Quds Force of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The Quds Force is the expeditionary wing of the IRGC and attempts to coordinate between these groups. However, since Qasem Soleimani was killed by the United States in 2020, the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah has emerged as a sort of de facto unifying figure among the Arab groups. Within the Arab groups that are part of the “Axis of Resistance”, there is vertical, top-down coordination. The Quds Force makes the decisions, and these groups will bow to their authority.
But there are a few exceptions. One is the Bashar al-Assad regime. It is an Alawite regime, which is a form of Islam that mixes Shiite and Catholic rites, and is an independent regime. Another one is Hamas, which is a Sunni Muslim Brotherhood group that is in a marriage of convenience with the “Axis of Resistance”. Nonetheless, in the decade of sectarian split after the Arab Spring, Hamas had to leave that alliance and leave Syria and leave its money, which was mostly in real estate in Syria, and flee to Qatar, where most of its leaders still are. Hamas is an on-again, off-again member because it is a Sunni Islamist group. The last one, which is also half-in, half-out, is the Houthis because they are Shiites, but they are Zaydi Shiites. They are Fiver Shiites, not Twelver Shiites. The Iranians, the Iraqi Shiites, the Lebanese Shiites, the Bahraini, and the Saudi Shiites are Twelver Shiites*.
What are the Houthis’ final goals?
During the war with Saudi Arabia, the Houthis had become increasingly dependent on the IRGC and Iran for missiles and equipment, as well as for training and support from Hezbollah. They also became increasingly dependent on them to maintain the military position they had gained in the fight against the Saudis. The Houthis’ intervention against international commercial shipping – with some 27 attacks on international ships since October 17th – is a very aggressive effort not just to integrate with the “Axis of Resistance”, but become a key member. They are now competing with Hezbollah, not to be lead the group, which they cannot because they are Fiver Shiites, but to become its most powerful member. It was always assumed that Hezbollah was the most potent because of its missiles and rockets, its experience, and the fact that Hezbollah is a hybrid of a militia and conventional army. But the Houthis are also a hybrid of militia and conventional, meaning that they can seize and hold territory, and they are very potent because of their strategic position and they are battle-hardened. Therefore, they are not just declaring their regional presence; they are saying we are an important part of this Axis. Why? In my opinion, they have acquired power, territory, and authority in northern Yemen. Though not completely, they never did.
How are these strikes intertwined with the war in Yemen?
It looks like the Houthis also think that integration and involvement in this “Axis of Resistance” are somehow important for their domestic standing. They have had shaky legitimacy for all the power they have taken by force, and there are still many people in northern Yemen who are ruled by the Houthis but are not convinced of the legitimacy of their authority. The Palestinian cause, which is very popular, confronting Israel and fighting back for Hamas, and claiming to be doing all of this on behalf of Gaza, is an attempt by them to gain popularity and legitimacy at home.
What’s at stake for the Americans and the British?
There are eight crucial choke points in the world for global maritime commercial shipping. Three of them are around the Arabian Peninsula: the Strait of Hormuz, the Bab al-Mandab Strait, which is exactly where the Houthis are harassing shipping, at the mouth of the Red Sea. On the other side of the Red Sea, there is the Suez Canal. 12 percent of global commerce passes between the Suez Canal and the Bab al-Mandab. The alternative is a very expensive voyage around the Cape of Good Hope. Between 40 percent and 55 percent of China’s annual energy consumption goes through the Strait of Hormuz. Also, more than 40 percent, I believe 60 percent, of its manufactured goods destined for Europe and the United States go through the Bab al-Mandab Strait and into the Suez Canal. The main Chinese military base outside its immediate area is in Djibouti, 40 kilometers from the Bab al-Mandab Strait; it is no coincidence that they placed it there.
That is why, in recent years, especially after the invasion of Ukraine, American strategic thinking has increasingly focused on how the US naval presence and dominance in these waterways around the Arabian Peninsula is a key geostrategic advantage over Beijing, its main great power rival, and something the United States should fight to defend. The old formulation in Washington that the main interests of the US are oil and Israel and perhaps counterterrorism, and therefore to maintain its presence, to deal with oil, Israel and counterterrorism, is old hat. At least since the invasion of Ukraine, the main concern is maritime security and maintaining the flow of commerce, with the US as the guarantor that these choke points remain open and the shipping remains unmolested.
What’s the role of Iran in the Houthis’ attacks?
Iran’s presence in Yemen is very strong; more than people have cared to admit. What Iran is trying to say indirectly is, one, if we and our alliance are not part of a maritime security regime in these waters, there will not be one. Number two, if we cannot buy and sell our oil freely, no one else will be allowed to buy and sell anything else without being harassed. The threat to Iran is sanctions, while the threat that they can impose comes from their presence in the Gulf region or the Houthis in the Bab al-Mandab Strait.
This is seen by the West as a form of piracy, which it is. There is also a long history of dealing with pirates, who would interfere with international shipping, and whether the Houthis meet the legal definition of piracy does not matter. That is why the West is using the model of how the Somali pirates were dealt with and how other pirates were dealt with: you cannot defeat pirates by patrolling the waters with naval ships, you have to go in and attack the pirates and make it too burdensome for them to continue. Going back to Iran, I also believe that Iran will be a restraining factor on the Houthis, not an accelerant factor because they do not want a wider war, a war that gets out of control and that can draw them and the Americans in.
Saudi Arabia never commented on the strikes by the US and Great Britain against Yemen’s Houthis. Why?
The Saudis are still unsure about the Americans. It started with the failure of Camp David in 2000, but especially with Barack Obama and the “red line” issue in Syria, where Obama did not follow through on his threat to Assad on chemical weapons, then the nuclear negotiations with Iran and the JCPOA. Then comes Donald Trump, and they think he is great, but then he turns out to be even more unreliable and unpredictable than anyone else.
The Saudis do not know at what point the US will intervene on their behalf or not. Bahrain got a little deal that said they would get more consultation. Not good enough. Similar things have been offered to the UAE. The UAE has been trying for years to get a new security arrangement – in writing – from Washington, and they have gotten nowhere. Until they get it, they still believe that Washington is unreliable.
Over the past couple of years, the Saudis have tried to restore diplomatic relations and diplomatic dialogue with Iran in order to achieve a truce in Yemen. Mohammed Bin Salman has shown that he can learn and has obviously learned that Saudi Arabia does not have the power to engage in a conflict, so the best thing is stability, security, and cooperation with whoever wants to be a friend. Yet, there are these unstable factors. After the Gaza war, the Saudis had a series of meetings with the Iranians to keep tensions down. Then they worked with the Iranians to have an OIC meeting.
The coalition against the Houthis is led by Britain and America. It has only one Arab member, which is Bahrain, and it does not include the UAE, and it does not include any of the Red Sea riparian states: Israel is not a member, Egypt is not a member, Saudi Arabia is not a member. Practically speaking, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel are all de facto members. The UAE is probably also a de facto member in a way. But because they want to keep tensions to a minimum for themselves, the Saudis are not joining this fight against the Houthis, and they are instead being mildly critical of the Americans for getting involved.
There is also a certain amount of schadenfreude on the part of the Saudis because the Americans have been giving them such a hard time over the past two or three years about the Houthis. Now the Saudis are saying, now you are fighting them and you want us to come and help. They are sitting back and enjoying the show.
Is there a risk of a wider regional war?
There’s a very big risk. Anytime another front arises with more actors, it adds to the instability. What we have is like the Lebanon border, another dangerous flashpoint. However, it is not uncontrolled enough to say there is a second war or that the situation has spiraled out of control. It is very dangerous because you could get to the point where the Houthis and the Americans get drawn into something much more extreme.
*The majority of Shiites, including Iranians, believe in 12 divinely ordained leaders, or Imams, however Zaydi Shiites in Yemen believe in five and are therefore sometimes called Fiver Shiites.
Cover photo: cargo ships are seen at Israel’s Haifa commercial shipping port in the Mediterranean Sea on December 13, 2023. In solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza, Yemen’s Houthis are warning that they will target cargo vessels sailing through the Red Sea if they are heading for Israeli ports, regardless of their nationality. Photo by Mati Milstein / NurPhoto via AFP.
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