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Red Sea Risks: Security Challenges and the Global Trade Equation
March 29, 2024

Interview with Sara Mokaddem, Manager of the Monitoring and Strategic Analysis Unit at the Policy Center for the New South, conducted by our columnist Helmut Sorge.


Oil tankers, mega cruise ships, and giant container vessels that once moved through secure waterways—the lifelines of global trade—are now menaced by missile and drone attacks, carried out by Houthi forces in Yemen. Meanwhile, pirates are active off the shores of Somalia, and Singapore or Hong Kong flagged vessels, are endangered by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, ready to capture the cargo on its way through the Persian Gulf and the narrow Straits of Hormuz toward global destinations. One third of the world’s liquified natural gas and about 25% of the world’s petrol passes through the Hormuz chokepoint. Up to 30% of global trade transits the Suez Canal. The tension on the oceans, escalating maritime terrorism, is slowing world trade dramatically, causing weeklong delays in the delivery of food supplies that are urgently needed in emerging nations. The world’s supply chains are disrupted, and no peaceful solution seems in sight. To date, the only answer to violence has been violence. The naval capacity of 23 nations has united in the Red Sea, with U.S. and British forces attacking Houthi targets in Yemen. The question: for how long U.S. forces will try to protect the international shipping community, now challenged by the Houthi in Yemen, which are financially supported and armed by Tehran.


How do you classify the attacks on international vessels in the Red Sea or the Persian Gulf? Acts of guerrilla warfare? Maritime terrorism? Or an act of war?

The attacks on international vessels in the Red Sea or the Persian Gulf can be classified as both maritime terrorism and acts of guerrilla warfare, depending on the perspective and context. From the standpoint of maritime terrorism, these attacks involve deliberate acts of violence or sabotage against civilian ships, intending to cause fear, disrupt maritime trade, and achieve political or ideological goals. The targeting by Houthi rebels of commercial vessels in these vital waterways, such as their attack on the Galaxy Leader cargo ship, fits this definition. By engaging in such attacks, the Houthis aim to exert pressure on regional and international actors, assert their influence, and advance their agenda, often with support or inspiration from external backers like Iran.

Simultaneously, these attacks can also be viewed through the lens of guerrilla warfare. The Houthi rebels, characterized as a rag-tag military operating on a limited budget, employ asymmetric tactics against superior naval forces. Guerrilla warfare involves unconventional tactics, including ambushes, hit-and-run attacks, and sabotage, aimed at weakening the enemy’s resolve, disrupting their operations, and ultimately achieving strategic objectives. The Houthi rebels’ use of missile strikes, drone attacks, and other forms of asymmetric warfare against naval targets in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf aligns with this definition.

However, categorizing these attacks solely as acts of war might be contentious. While they do constitute acts of aggression against international shipping, invoking the threshold of war depends on various factors, including the scale, intent, and response from affected nations. These attacks have not necessarily led to full-fledged military conflicts between states, although they have caused tensions to escalate and have prompted military responses, including naval patrols and retaliatory airstrikes. Therefore, while these actions may contribute to the broader dynamics of regional conflicts, labeling them as acts of war requires careful consideration of the overall geopolitical context and implications.


The Houthi has threatened to continue firing missiles at Israel or ships suspected of deliver cargoes to Israel as long as the Jewish State continues its war in Palestine, with which the rebellious Yemenis have declared solidarity. Under international law, is such an interference, although in terms of human concern understandable, an act of war, or at least a case for the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea?

The interference described, despite the conflict being distant from Yemen, raises complex legal questions regarding maritime law and the laws of armed conflict.

From a legal perspective, such interference could potentially constitute acts of aggression or armed conflict under international law. The deliberate targeting of civilian vessels, whether for ideological reasons or as part of a broader conflict, violates fundamental principles of maritime law, including the freedom of navigation, and the protection of civilian lives at sea. Additionally, threats of attacks against ships bound for a specific destination, such as Israel, may be interpreted as a form of economic warfare or blockade, further complicating the legal analysis.

In terms of recourse, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) could potentially adjudicate in disputes related to these actions, particularly if they involve violations of international maritime conventions or customary law. ITLOS has jurisdiction over matters concerning the interpretation and application of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and other relevant treaties governing maritime rights and responsibilities. Therefore, affected states or parties could bring complaints or seek legal remedies through ITLOS to address violations of maritime law or seek redress for damages resulting from such interference.

However, the effectiveness of legal mechanisms such as ITLOS in resolving conflicts involving non-state actors like the Houthi rebels may be limited. Enforcement of tribunal decisions relies heavily on the cooperation of member states and compliance with international norms, which may be challenging to achieve in contexts marked by ongoing armed conflict and geopolitical tensions. Nonetheless, engaging with international legal institutions and leveraging existing frameworks can help clarify legal obligations, hold perpetrators accountable, and contribute to efforts to uphold maritime security and stability in the region.


Twenty-three nations, mainly led by the US, are intervening in the Red Sea. Just imagine one scenario: the Houthi forces sink an American destroyer, killing 200 U.S. sailors. Would that not lead to an American engagement in a destructive war against Yemen, possibly bombing Iranian military installations in and around Tehran, provoking a military escalation, with unforeseeable consequences for global trade and energy supplies—the Strait of Hormuz blocked by Iran, the Red Sea, and the Suez Canal inaccessible because of Houthi provocations?

While the scenario outlined presents a sobering possibility of conflict escalation and its attendant consequences, it also underscores the imperative of diplomatic efforts to prevent such scenarios, promote regional de-escalation, and safeguard maritime security and trade routes vital to the global economy.

The scenario described, wherein the Houthi forces sink an American destroyer, has the potential to trigger a significant escalation of conflict with far-reaching consequences for regional stability, global trade, and energy supplies. Such a catastrophic event could indeed prompt a robust military response from the United States, potentially including further airstrikes against Houthi targets in Yemen and even targeting Iranian military installations perceived to be supporting the rebels.

However, the likelihood of direct military confrontation between the United States and Iran, or a broader conflict engulfing the region, would depend on a range of factors, including the specific circumstances of the incident, the political calculations of involved actors, and efforts to de-escalate tensions through diplomatic channels. Not to forget that it is also a year of elections in the U.S., with the Biden Administration quite unlikely to lead the country into another heavy confrontation. While the United States has demonstrated a willingness to use military force in response to threats to its interests and personnel, it also recognizes the risks of escalation and the need to carefully calibrate its response to avoid further destabilizing the region.

In the event of a significant escalation, the Strait of Hormuz, a critical maritime chokepoint through which a significant portion of global oil supplies passes, could indeed become a focal point of contention, with Iran potentially attempting to block or disrupt shipping in retaliation for military action against its forces. Such disruptions could lead to further supply shortages, price volatility, and broader economic impacts, affecting not only the countries directly involved but also global markets and energy consumers worldwide.


At the present time the naval operation Prosperity Guardian to protect international vessels in the Red Sea, is led by U.S. naval forces. How will the world trade organizations and companies defend their interests, if Washington, as demanded by Congress, reduces its military engagement in the region, since most U.S. cargo is carried by globally flagged vessels and only 3% of the goods destined for the U.S. are carried by U.S.-flagged vessels?

In response to the escalating threats posed by Houthi militias in the Red Sea, the formation of a new multinational alliance, Operation Prosperity Guardian, was launched by the United States. Designed to safeguard navigation in this vital maritime corridor, the coalition initially comprised more than 20 nations, including key allies such as the UK, Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Seychelles, and Spain. However, recent developments have indicated growing reluctance among some coalition members to associate themselves publicly with the initiative, reflecting broader geopolitical complexities and domestic concerns. This hesitancy stems partly from internal political considerations, particularly in Europe, where public sentiment regarding Israel’s actions in the Gaza conflict has shifted, leading to increased scrutiny of alliances perceived as aligning too closely with Israeli interests.

The reluctance of some coalition members to fully commit to Operation Prosperity Guardian also reflects broader geopolitical tensions and competing interests in the region. The Red Sea serves as a critical maritime artery, handling approximately 12% of global trade and serving as the entry point for ships using the Suez Canal. Disruption to shipping lanes due to Houthi attacks has led to re-routing of vessels, increasing sailing time and costs, and impacts on global trade flows.

Moreover, the recent attacks on shipping vessels in the Red Sea by Houthi militias have overshadowed efforts towards peace in Yemen. Despite progress made in 2023, including bilateral talks between the Houthis and Saudi Arabia and a commitment to a nationwide ceasefire, ongoing security challenges and regional rivalries continue to undermine stability in the region. Meanwhile, the Biden Administration faces the challenge of balancing its commitment to safeguarding navigation in the Red Sea with broader regional dynamics and domestic considerations. Operation Prosperity Guardian represents a significant investment of resources and diplomatic capital in addressing maritime security threats, but its effectiveness hinges on the willingness of coalition members to fully engage and collaborate on shared objectives.


Piracy, as witnessed over the last few years, mainly off Somalia shores, did not have any significant impact on global shipping or world trade. Maritime terrorism though, as adopted by Yemen’s Houthi, has slowed down world trade, since container vessels and oil tankers are avoiding the Red Sea to reach the Suez Canal, switching to the far longer route around South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope. The result: global supply chains are disrupted; port congestion and additional delays are reported. Dramatic increases in shipping rates are expected. Which measures are available to the UN or individual governments troubled by congested chokepoints?

The issue of maritime terrorism, particularly in the Red Sea, has emerged as a pressing concern because of its significant impact on global trade and shipping routes. Unlike traditional piracy off the coast of Somalia, which has historically been managed to some extent, the tactics employed by groups like Yemen's Houthi rebels present a new and evolving threat that requires immediate and coordinated international responses. The recent escalation of maritime terrorism in the Red Sea, exemplified by attacks on commercial vessels transiting through the region, has led to disruptions in global supply chains and increased congestion at key maritime chokepoints. This situation has been exacerbated by the reluctance of shipping companies to utilize the Red Sea passage, opting instead for the longer route around South Africa's Cape of Good Hope to reach the Suez Canal. Consequently, dramatic increases in shipping rates are anticipated, further adding to the economic burden imposed by these security threats.

Over a decade of protracted conflict in Yemen has precipitated a dire governance crisis and the near-total collapse of state institutions, compelling the international community to urgently confront the complex challenges facing the country. The prolonged warfare, marked by competing regional and international interests, has exacerbated existing political and socio-economic vulnerabilities, plunging Yemen into a state of profound instability and disarray. Recent developments involving the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea serve as a stark illustration of Yemen’s internal turmoil, highlighting the broader implications of the conflict for regional security and global trade.

To address the challenges posed by congested chokepoints and to mitigate the impacts of maritime terrorism on global trade, the United Nations (UN) and individual governments have several measures at their disposal. Firstly, enhanced maritime security measures are paramount. This includes the deployment of naval forces to patrol and secure critical maritime routes, such as the Red Sea, to deter attacks and protect commercial vessels. Additionally, leveraging advanced surveillance technologies, such as satellite monitoring and maritime domain awareness systems, can enhance detection and tracking capabilities, enabling proactive responses to potential threats.

Multilateral cooperation is also essential. Collaborative efforts among countries affected by maritime terrorism can strengthen response capabilities and coordination mechanisms. Initiatives such as joint naval patrols and intelligence-sharing agreements facilitate effective security operations and contribute to the safeguarding of shipping lanes and chokepoints.

Furthermore, bolstering international legal frameworks is crucial. Strengthening agreements such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) provides a basis for addressing maritime security threats and prosecuting perpetrators of maritime terrorism. Enhanced cooperation in legal and judicial matters facilitates the prosecution and punishment of individuals involved in terrorist activities at sea.

Diplomatic engagement and conflict resolution efforts are also imperative. Addressing the root causes of maritime terrorism requires diplomatic initiatives aimed at promoting peace and stability in regions affected by insecurity.


Can the world afford another two or three of its global chokepoints (of 14 worldwide) becoming troubled by military activities, such as the Malacca Straits, for example (linking the South China Sea with the Indian Ocean and just 2.7 km wide at its narrowest point), the Panama Canal, already troubled by lack of water due to drought, or the Turkish Straits (two internationally significant waterways connecting the Aegean Sea to the Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea), which Ukraine is using to transport its wheat to the global community?

In today's interconnected world, maritime trade routes serve as vital arteries of global commerce, facilitating the movement of goods across oceans and continents. However, recent years have seen a surge in disruptions and challenges at critical maritime chokepoints, highlighting the vulnerability of this essential aspect of international trade. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing challenges and accelerated disruptions, serving as a wake-up call for companies and nations. Climate change-induced weather events and rising geopolitical tensions further compound the unpredictability of supply chain operations, necessitating proactive strategies to manage these challenges effectively.

The Red Sea has emerged as a hotspot for vessel attacks off the coast of Yemen, severely impacting maritime transport. The Suez Canal, a linchpin connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea, handles a substantial portion of global trade, making disruptions in this region reverberate throughout the supply chain. The ongoing conflict has led to delays, rerouting of ships, and increased shipping costs, contributing to fears of inflation and supply shortages. Similarly, the Panama Canal, crucial for linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, grapples with challenges such as drought-induced water shortages, leading to tonnage restrictions and extended wait times for vessels.

In the Turkish Straits, recent events underscore the delicate balance between security interests and international obligations. Turkiye's adherence to the Montreux Convention, while aimed at safeguarding its national security, also highlights the evolving dynamics of its foreign policy, navigating between its NATO commitments and its relationship with Russia. By refusing passage to British warships, Turkiye has asserted its authority over the straits, showcasing its strategic importance in regional geopolitics.

Meanwhile, the specter of armed robbery looms over the Straits of Malacca and Singapore, adding another layer of complexity to maritime security challenges. With over 100,000 vessels navigating the Malacca Strait annually, making it the busiest strait in the world, carrying about 25% of the world’s traded goods, including oil, Chinese manufactured products, and other goods worth trillions of dollars, any disruption could have profound repercussions on global commerce. Moreover, projections indicate that shipping traffic will soon surpass the strait of Malacca’s capacity, necessitating urgent attention to potentially identify alternative trade routes.

As the world navigates these complex maritime dynamics, collaboration among countries remains paramount. These disruptions have profound implications, considering that maritime transportation accounts for about 70% of international trade value, with at least two-thirds of this carried by containers. The interconnected nature of global commerce means that disruptions to maritime trade reverberate across industries and geographies, affecting companies and consumers alike. Any disruption at these chokepoints could have far-reaching consequences, including increased consumer prices, environmental harm due to longer shipping routes, and potential shortages of essential goods.

Companies must continuously validate and fine-tune their supply-chain operations, diversifying suppliers and exploring nearshoring options to provide flexibility and stability in the face of disruptions. Embracing agility, innovation, and collaboration is imperative to build a more robust and adaptive supply-chain ecosystem capable of withstanding the myriad challenges on the horizon.


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