HOUTHI REBELS PLAY IMPORTANT ROLE IN RESOLUTION OF CONFLICT
Saudi Arabia resumed oil shipments through the Bab-el-Mandeb strait on 4 August after a temporary suspension following alleged attacks on two Saudi Very Large Crude Carriers (VLCC). The attacks occurred on 24 July late at night when the two VLCCs were transiting approximately 70NM off the Yemeni coast and the port of al-Hudaydah. One of the vessels reportedly sustained minor damage.
Houthi forces claim that these attacks were against a Saudi military frigate and another warship near the coast. Houthi leaders assert that coalition forces are manipulating the international community by reporting that the attacked vessels were oil tankers. Should Houthi rebels significantly hinder navigation through the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait it is likely that international bodies would be more amenable to a fast resolution of the ongoing conflict which guarantees the vital shipping routes.
Although Houthi rebels based on the west coast of Yemen have attacked Saudi coalition assets at sea intermittently since the beginning of the conflict, these attacks represent the first instance rebels have forced Saudi Arabia to alter its maritime operations.
Saudi Arabia’s Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih stated that “the decision to resume shipping of oil through Bab-el-Mandeb comes after all necessary procedures were taken by the coalition leadership to protect ships of the coalition countries”. Although further detail regarding the “necessary measures” was not elaborated on, the reported destruction of an alleged Houthi vessel loaded with explosives near Yemen’s west coast the following day was likely part of the security initiative. Houthi rebels have previously utilised water-borne IEDs in their attacks on coalition forces.
Another security measure likely taken in response to the attacks included AIS policy. According to NYA MarTrack data, hours after the decision to resume oil transits through the waterway at least seven tankers anchored off Salalah Port, Oman, ‘went dark’ by turning off their AIS transponders. Since the incident several vessels have been arriving at the port, apparently in preparation for transit through the critical chokepoint. Despite BMP5 recommendations to leave the AIS system on throughout transits within the HRA, Saudi Arabia has likely taken this decision to deter any hostile tracking which could result in more attacks.
The resumption of oil shipments was likely also aided by the Houthi announcement on 1 August of a two-week ceasefire in relation to Red Sea operations. Muhammed Ali al Houthi, Head of the Supreme Revolutionary Committee (SRC), stated the unilateral halt in naval military operations would be for a “limited time period and could be extended and include all fronts…”. This ceasefire is most likely a signal to the international community to calm fears regarding the threat to transits in the Red Sea rather than a genuine offer. Houthi forces do not want to validate the coalition’s main justification for intervening in Yemen’s war in 2015, namely to protect shipping routes. Although the Houthi forces remain under significant pressure from the Saudi-led coalition it is unlikely that the protracted conflict will be resolved by negotiations in the short term.
Despite conflicting claims regarding the type of the vessel targeted, the incident indicates that a general threat to transiting vessels remains. In the likely event of the conflict resuming after the two-week Houthi rebel ceasefire, vessels are encouraged to adhere to BMP5 guidelines as attacks will likely resume – however, vessels associated with the Saudi coalition are the most likely to be targeted.
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