Some of the participants in the webinar (South24 center)

A Webinar: Consequences of the Conflict in the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea


Fri, 26-01-2024 10:01 AM, Aden Time

"The right question that should be raised about this matter is about the size of damage the United States wants to inflict on the Houthis."

Aden (South24)

Experts have warned of the consequences of the expansion of the military escalation in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden as a result of the attacks by the Iran-backed Houthis against commercial vessels. This is in addition to the recent American-British strikes that targeted locations affiliated with the Houthis in Sanaa and other cities in North Yemen as a response to these attacks.

This was part of a webinar organized by ’South24 Center‘ on Tuesday via ’Zoom‘ under the title ’The Consequences of the Conflict in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea‘. Some of our top experts participated in the webinar, including political expert and former Member of the UN Security Council Panel of Experts on Yemen Fernando Carvajal, Egyptian political expert specializing in international relationships and regional security Eman Zahran, Research Program Officer at Free The Slaves (FTS) and a Fellow at the Center on Armed Groups Marta Furlan, and Regional Director of ’South24 Center‘ Jacob Al-Sufyani.

The webinar, which was moderated by political researcher Osan Bin Siddah, discussed three main axes:

- Assessing the escalating situation in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden following the American-British strikes against the Houthis. 

- Repercussions of the ongoing strikes against the Houthis and the US’ re-designation of them as a global terrorist group.

- The importance of securing the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden and the needed measures.

The First Axis: Assessment of the situation:

Fernando Carvajal believes that the Houthi maritime attacks forced the United States to resort to the military option. He added that the joint American-British strikes against the Houthis are specific retaliatory strikes with an aim to reduce the Houthi escalation and not an escalation per se. 

He said: “The Biden Administration is criticized for choosing this time to launch these strikes, amid the political efforts related to the Yemen crisis. But I think that the Houthis are the ones who chose this timing. The US Progressive Left, to which Biden belongs, is against the notion of war. However, the use of diplomacy with the Houthis has failed for more than a decade.”

Carvajal rejects the Houthi’s claims that their naval escalation is linked to the war in Gaza. He pointed to the Iranian role that supports and directs the latest Houthi moves against international shipping.

Marta Furlan agrees that Iranian support to the Houthis at the media and military levels has provided them with capabilities to threaten the region. She said: “The Houthis are a low-cost investment for Iran, but they are very effective in a way that allows Tehran to project its power in the region.” However, Furlan believes that the Houthis have some independence from Iran that allows them to make some decisions.

She doesn’t believe that Iran will directly engage in the conflict in the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the entire region in general, as Tehran does so via its proxies, including Hezbollah and the Houthis. 

Commenting on the regional stance toward the developments in the Red Sea, Eman Zahran, joining from Cairo, spoke about the Egyptian position. She said that these developments and their consequences, especially on the economic front, will affect the whole world and not only the countries overlooking the Red Sea. 

She added: “Despite the big economic losses that have hit Egypt due to the Houthi attacks and the resulting decline in the Suez Canal’s revenues, Cairo hasn’t participated in the ‘Prosperity Guardian’ initiative due to its own special vision on how to direct the conflict. We reject the Houthi operations at the political level, but Egypt has adopted a diplomatic approach in dealing with such crises.”

The Egyptian expert raised several questions about the multi-nation ‘Prosperity Guardian’ security initiative, led by the United States, to respond to Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea. She doubted the effectiveness of these strikes in light of the fact that joint international task forces have existed for many years to protect navigation in the region. She added: “We also look at the Houthi attacks as a kind of support to Gaza. We (Egypt) adopt a firm stance that endorses the Palestinian cause.”

According to Jacob Al-Sufyani, the American-British strikes came after the United States had exhausted other pressure tools to stop the Houthi maritime attacks. He said: “Over the past years, the Houthis have established a kind of immunity against the Saudi air attacks. However, if we keep in mind the big differences between American and Saudi capabilities at the military and intelligence levels it means that the Houthis are affected or can be affected by these strikes.”

Al-Sufyani said the right question that should be raised about this matter is about the size of damage the United States wants to inflict on the Houthis. He believes that Washington doesn’t want to change the military situation of the Houthis in a way that can affect their role in Yemen.

The Second Axis: The repercussions

Regarding the second axis, Jacob Al-Sufyani said: “I believe that the political process related to Yemen is in a crisis now because of what is happening in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. The efforts to broker a political deal between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia are at least frozen for now.” 

Al-Sufyani warned about the Houthis’ exploiting the current circumstances to negotiate with the United States for demands related to Yemen away from the war in Gaza, especially before the US’ re-resignation of the Houthis took effect.  

Marta Furlan explained that the Houthis are taking advantage of their attacks in the Red Sea to expand their demands at the negotiation table with Saudi Arabia and to bolster their stance. She added: “Saudi Arabia faces a delicate position today as there is an ongoing operation near its borders. It will be difficult for Riyadh to align with the United States and Israel in any military action against the Houthis.”

According to Furlan, the Iranian position is stronger than the Saudi one. She pointed out that Riyadh is seeking to enhance its economy and devote itself to achieving its projects. On the international stance, Furlan said that “China apparently monitors all these events. It has concerns about the suspension of the shipping routes via the Red Sea.”

On the economic and humanitarian risks from the ongoing Houthi escalation, Carvajal didn’t discount that the group is likely aspiring to wield control of Bab al-Mandab to rake in economic gains from the international shipping route via the strategic strait. He added that it is possible for the Houthis to blackmail shipping companies.

He stressed that “China is really affected by the Houthi attacks on international navigation. Moreover, China’s political image in the region has been damaged. For the past two years Beijing has been keen to solidify its presence in the region. However, China is absent from the current scene.” The American expert rejected the idea that the Houthis had launched the maritime attacks for the sake of Gaza.

Carvajal also pointed to the Houthis’ ambitions for acquiring the gas and oil resources of South Yemen. He stressed that the Southern Transitional Council (STC) rejects this. 

Eman Zahran underscored that Egypt has been economically affected by the Houthi attacks, but she described this as being “temporary” until stability is restored in the region. She added: ”The impact on international shipping is another blow, in addition to the supply chain problems and those resulting from the Russian-Ukrainian war.”

The Third Axis: Needed measures

On the measures needed to deal with the current situation, Eman Zahran said: “Egypt has its own paths, maneuvers, and contacts at the level of countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, and UAE and at the level of non-state actors such as the Houthis.”

She added: “I think the Houthis will opt for a swap deal, to stop their naval attacks in return for political demands related to the crisis in Yemen.” The Egyptian expert doesn’t believe that the US-led ‘Prosperity Guardian’ will impact the Houthis or even the American-British strikes, which she described as being “marginal”.

Furlan doesn’t think that the American-British strikes are enough to deter the Houthi naval attacks. She explained: “These strikes may help to spread the Houthi propaganda due to their weak military impact.” According to her, “the Houthi attacks have served as a big opportunity for them to mobilize popular support and escape their internal crises.”

In terms of the Houthi declaration that their maritime attacks will cease if the Gaza war stops, Furlan said that “this can’t be confirmed before the end of the Hamas-Israel confrontation. This will take a long time.”

Carvajal believes the Houthis have won from the latest events in the Red Sea. He elaborated by saying: “The ongoing Houthi control of Sanaa and Al-Hodeidah perpetuates their threats against the Red Sea and Bab al-Mandab.”

In terms of the role that can be played by the Yemeni anti-Houthi parties, he said: “The United States can’t support any of these parties because of the fragmentation within the Yemeni Leadership Council. Washington can’t deliver weapons to a certain party as Saudi Arabia still holds the reins of the Yemeni file.”

He believes that targeting the Houthi missile and air defense capabilities through the American strikes can weaken the Iran-backed group. 

Al-Sufyani rejects the Houthi claims that the maritime escalation is aimed at stopping the war in Gaza. He indicated that the Houthis have a record of maritime piracy operations over the past years. He talked about the Houthi military activities before the October 7 Al-Aqsa Storm operation. These included testing of naval missiles and boats in July 2023 and statements by the then Houthi Defense Minister Mohammed Al-Atfi regarding what he described as “the illegal presence of the foreign occupation in Yemeni territorial waters”.

Al-Sufyani believes that the ’STC‘ is the most courageous party in proposing the idea of deterring the Houthi attacks against international navigation while the Yemeni parties within the Internationally Recognized Government are enthusiastic. He concluded by stating that recognizing the Southerners’ demands for an independent state and supplying the Southern forces with weapons and training should be the return.

- South24 Center

HouthisRed SeaGolf of AdenYemenNorht YemenSouth YemenIranUS-StricksIsraelGaza War