10 January 2018: Overnight, the Houthi movement in Yemen threatened to block the Red Sea shipping lane if the Saudi led coalition continues its push north toward the port of Hodeidah. Houthi Political Council Chief, Saleh al-Samad, the latter was quoted as saying, “If the aggressors keep pushing towards Hodeidah and if the political solution hits wall, there are some strategic choices that will be taken as a no return point, including blocking the international navigation in the Red Sea.” The report provided no specific details of how they would enact this threat. However, the Bab-al Mandab, which connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden is the most likely target.
Since January 2017, the Saudi coalition has been engaged in Operation Golden Spear, an offensive aimed at recapturing Yemen’s western coast from Houthi forces and denying them access to key Red Sea ports. Hodeidah port is the final maritime stronghold for the Houthi rebels, and is critical to both the rebel group and Yemeni government. Hodeidah port receives 80% of Yemen’s imports, including vital food and medical aid necessary to support civilians in what has become the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.
However, reports indicate the Houthis have relied on the port to smuggle in Iranian-made weapons to maintain their offensive against the Yemeni government. The Saudi-led coalition has conducted ground and air campaigns in the areas around the port, but have conducted comparatively few targets against the port itself, relenting to urgent warnings by allies and UN member states.
The UN has been working to bring the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels together for peace negotiations. However, on 4 December, the Houthis assassinated their former ally, Former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, causing a shutdown of all negotiation attempts. Saleh, who had aligned with the Houthi rebels throughout the war, had formally broken ties with the group on 2 December, two days before his death. Saleh was believed to be a vital component of resolution to the years-long war; it was believed he could broker a deal between the rebels and the Yemeni government.
Following Saleh’s assassination, the Saudi Coalition closed all land, air and sea ports, resulting in a vacuum of critical food, gas, and medical supplies to the stricken country. Once again at the urging of the UN and allies, the Coalition reopened many ports, with a temporary reopening of Hodeidah port beginning on 20 December and lasting 30 days.
The warning from the Houthis came during a meeting with Deputy UN envoy to Yemen, Maeen Shureim, who travelled to meet with Houthi leaders and set the stage for another round of peace negotiations. On Monday, Houthi Chief al- Samad criticised UN efforts to resolve the war in Yemen. “We’ve come to a stage where we don’t care anymore about the role of the UN in solving the crisis in Yemen,” al-Samad was quoted as saying.
On Tuesday, the United Arab Emirates minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, said “The Houthi who decimated crops and seeds, destroyed Yemen, betrayed his ally and partner, is now threatening the international navigation; we are facing a terrorist gang that the end of its existence in Yemen is nigh.”
Implications: Intentions and Capabilities:
The threat to block international navigation in the Red Sea is critical. Although the Red Sea contains chokeholds in the north and south, the Suez Canal, nearly 1700 miles away and heavily guarded by Egyptian security forces, is a logistically unlikely target. It is highly likely that the Houthis would intend to target the Bab al Mandab Strait.
At just 20 miles across at its widest point, the strait is a chokepoint for maritime vessels entering or exiting the waterways. Under an international traffic separation scheme, northbound shipping uses a two-mile wide lane on the Arabian side of the strait, while southbound traffic uses a lane on the African side. The lanes are mainly for use by commercial vessels, but are largely ignored by smaller local ships or fishing boats. More than 60 commercial vessels transit the strait each day, alongside passenger cruise liners. Bab-al-Mandab is also one of the most important trade routes for oil tankers; between four and five million barrels of oil pass through the strait annually, mostly heading to Europe. Together, the area and vitality of this waterway combine to make the strait a valuable—and easy—target, potentially threatening hundreds of vessels.
The Houthis have displayed a means to conduct attacks in the Bab-al-Mandab waterway; in March 2017, a Yemeni coast guard vessel struck a naval mine in the vicinity of Mokha port, killing two soldiers and wounding eight. The attack was the first recorded instance of the use of naval mines since the war began. Security officials believed that the mine was planted by Houthi rebels, and reports circulated that the rebels may have placed naval mines around Mokha port to disrupt Coalition operations. Warnings were also issued that the Houthi rebels could deploy aquatic mines in the waters around Hodeidah port as they prepare to defend their control of the Hodeidah governorate.
The rebels have conducted other attacks near Bab-al-Mandab strait using means apart from naval mines. In October 2016, Houthi rebels claimed an attack which destroyed a UAE catamaran in the Strait. Later that month, LNG gas tanker Galicia Spirit was attacked by unknown assailants near Perim Island, approximately eight miles from the Yemeni Coast, in Bab al-Mandab Strait. In January 2017, Saudi warship Al-Madinah was attacked west of Hodeidah port, leaving two crew members dead. It was later determined that the attack had been conducted via a remotely controlled drone device, launched and controlled from Hodeidah port.
The coalition has been conducting searches aboard vessels entering Yemeni ports and reinforced security on land and at airports, however the Houthis do not show any signs of lacking the arsenal necessary to continue their insurgency in Yemen. The recapture of Mokha port from the Houthi rebels in February 2017 uncovered hidden caches of weapons; it is likely that Houthi rebels have additional stockpiles in other areas across Yemen, and are being supplemented through still unidentified smuggling routes.
In December, UN secretary general Antonio Guterres warned that Iran may be defying a call to halt ballistic missile development, and may have been transferring these weapons to the Houthi rebels in Yemen. In November 2017, a ballistic missile fired by the Houthis into Riyadh, Saudi Arabia had Iranian markings, according to a US Air Force official in the Middle East.
It is believed that naval mines deployed by the Houthi rebels have made their way to Yemen through Iranian arms smuggling networks led by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), using extensive maritime smuggling networks. In March 2017, it was found that at least three IRGC front companies were identified in arms smuggling to Yemen, likely using maritime commercial supply chains to deliver weaponry. As access to Yemen ports has been impeded, the companies may be using sea ports outside of Yemen to smuggle weapons, which are then transferred overland to their final destination. This evidence indicates that the Houthis have the capability to disrupt maritime traffic through the waterway, and could likely target Bab-al-Mandab Strait in an effort to protect their hold on Hodeidah port.
While unmanned drone boats may likely target coalition warships, aquatic mines do not distinguish, and can cause harm to any vessel in the vicinity. The guidance issued by UKMTO on 1 February 2017 remains in place. Masters are urged to:
- Increase vigilance
- Maintain the furthest possible distance from the Yemen coast
- Transit the Bab el Mandeb strait during daylight hours
- Use the western Traffic Separation Scheme wherever possible.
In addition, ships are urged to prevent misidentification, transmit AIS, and register and comply with BMP4 guidance.
If a master believes he is in or near a mined area note the following immediate action drills:
- Mount extra watches with binoculars and any other observation aids available
- Watch for foreign objects, flotsam and suspect craft in the vicinity
- Drill muster stations and abandon ship preparations
- High state of readiness maintained at all times
- Review cargo consignment for extra sensitivity or control measures
- Plot friendly warships in proximity for distress options and identify if military minesweepers are active or inbound
- Consider night operations, pilot meeting points, harbour entry/exit very carefully
If a mine strike is unavoidable then masters should issue distress signals on Channel 16 and attempt to strike bow-on to minimise casualties and ensure best chance of crew survival. Stern, glancing or flank strikes will enhance damage and accelerate any crisis.
If sea mines are confirmed in an area, then vessels must deviate from any route that would take them into the danger zone until verifiable clearance has completed.
31 January, 2017– An attack on a Saudi warship west of Hudaydah Port has left two crew members killed and three injured. Al Masira TV, a Houthi-controlled station, has broadcast what appears to be footage of the attack on Yemen’s western coast.
Rebel sources told Al Masira that guided missiles were used in the attack; however, a statement by Saudi authorities says that three “suicide boats” approached the frigate. One of the suicide boats reportedly collided with the rear of frigate, exploding and causing a fire.
The attacks come as coalition forces continue “Operation Golden Spear,” which began on 7 January 2017. Operation Golden Spear will see coalition forces advancing northward along Yemen’s western coast to drive Houthi rebels out of Hudaydah and other Red Sea ports. The coalition has warned that the Houthis may be using Hudaydah as a launch-pad for terrorist operations that could hamper international navigation and the flow of humanitarian and medical necessities into Yemen.
Saba news agency, part of which taken over by the Houthis in January 2015, cited a military source as saying, “The targeting of this warship comes within the framework of the legal right of Yemen to defend the homeland and its sovereignty.”
The attack comes ten days after a statement reportedly made by the Yemeni navy, coastal defense and coastguard, which warned that the forces are prepared to respond to aggression, should Saudi warships in international waters bomb civilian targets in the country. The statement also warned that merchant vessels in international water land require Long Range Tracking and Identification (LRIT) for safe navigation. In October, the Houthis were accused of firing missiles at a US warship and a UAE chartered logistics ship.
In a separate event, al Masira reports on Tuesday morning, Houthi fighters launched a missile at a coalition military base on the island of Zuqar, situated between Yemen and Eritrea on the Red Sea. There is currently no information regarding damages or casualties, nor confirmation from the Saudi-led coalition. South of Hudaydah, fierce fighting is reported to be ongoing at the port city of Mokha.
MS Risk continues to advise extreme caution for vessels traveling through Bab Al Mandab, the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. In October, MS Risk warned that the battle in Yemen could change in trajectory, causing greater impact on the maritime navigation through the Bab al Mandab Strait. According to reports, Hudaydah port remains operation, however this is subject to change. The Saudi-led coalition has not yet given any indication of its next steps, however as they continue to push northward along Yemen’s coast, there is a likelihood of potential shore-to-ship, or water-borne attacks, or retaliatory responses. This could result in disruption of shipping routes, or possible damage to vessels.
Ship owners and masters are urged stay abreast of the conflict and to carry out a risk assessment prior to entering Bab al Mandab or Yemeni waters. Seek up-to-the-moment, reliable information from local sources and remain vigilant. Crew members are urged to report unusual or potentially hostile activity to coalition naval forces via the following methods:
VHF: Channel 16
All vessels must adhere to UN and Coalition-led inspections.
United Nations Inspections
The UN Verification and Inspection Mechanism (UNVIM) is operational for commercial imports to Yemen.
Shipping companies or owners delivering to ports not under the control of the Government of Yemen must apply for permits upon departing from the port of origin of their cargo. Yemen-based importers/traders are required to submit this notification form. More information about the UNVIM program is available here: https://www.vimye.org/home.
Vessels applying to go to ports under the control of the Government of Yemen need obtain permission for entry from the Yemeni Ministry of Transport. This should be done through the ship’s agent and/or receivers prior to the vessel’s arrival. The form should be completed by the ship’s master and sent directly to the Ministry of Transport.
Saudi Coalition Inspections
All vessels calling at Yemeni ports will only be allowed to enter Yemeni territorial waters following an inspection by the Saudi Arabian coalition forces. Upon arrival outside Bab Al-Mandab, the shipmaster should call the naval forces of the Saudi Arabian coalition by VHF on channel 16 for the arrival registration, and indicate his location (ideally three miles from Bab Al Mandab). Coalition authorities will advise on the anchor position until they provide final approval to enter the port. This procedure will not take more than 48 hours.
Coalition inspectors do not conduct investigation with the crew; contact will be with the ship’s master or Chief Officer about the cargo and documents. Once the vessel is permitted into Yemeni ports, the Master will be required to call port control by VHF on channel 14 or 16 for the arrival registration. The shipmaster will be advised the anchor position until the Harbour master confirms berthing prospects.
Coalition forces require AIS to be kept on at all times. The situation is subject to change and vessels should check frequently with local sources for any changes.
A country destroyed by war, almost entirely eclipsed by the conflict in Syria. Referred to as the forgotten war due to its lack of media attention, the situation in Yemen is dire.
In Yemen, 80% of the population need humanitarian aid.
Yemen’s situation is a complex one. It is not simply one conflict; it is mixed with and indistinguishable from conflicts of the past. This is a likely cause for its lack of media attention: there is no clear bad guy and no good versus evil story to tell the public. Leaving the Yemeni people to suffer in silence.
The issue can be followed back to the Arab Spring. Following the Tunisian revolution in 2011, there was a call for change in Yemen. The then President Ali Abdullah Saleh was ousted and replaced by his deputy Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi on February 27th 2012. At this time Yemen was plagued with many domestic issues including separatist movements in the South, terrorism and extreme poverty. Houthi rebels used this time of instability to occupy large areas of the country. The Houthi are a Shia Muslim group made up of around 40% of Yemen’s Muslims. The rebels seized the capital and caused President Hadi to flee and call for support in March 2015. In response to the uprising, and because of accusations of links to Iran, Saudi Arabia began a campaign, with assistance from the US, the UK, France and eight other Arab states. Their goal, they claimed, was to drive out rebel forces and reinstate Hadi.
The future of Yemen is unclear; the war rages on with no visible end. Peace talks come and go. Ultimately, after nineteen months of constant battle, the country is near the edge of collapse. The UN estimates the war has killed 10,000 Yemeni people and over 36,000 have been injured, but there are fears this number could be much higher. Even before the conflict, the country, with a population of nearly 28 million is larger than Syria, was the poorest in the Middle East. Now, over 14 million are described as food insecure, with 1.5 million children suffering from malnutrition. Before the war, 90% of Yemen’s food came from outside its borders. Now, Saudi blockades and rebel sieges on cities are restricting supplies getting to civilians. Alongside this, the Yemeni heath system is heavily damaged and war survivors are facing different threats. 10,000 children under five years old have died from preventable diseases since the war began. Less than half of the health facilities remain open and there is a severe shortage of doctors. In the capital, Sana’a, less than half of the residents are connected to the water supply. Even then, the water only runs one every four days. In some cities in the South, water comes once a month. Another threat to the people of Yemen is a recent cholera outbreak that has over 2000 suspected cases.
There is a glimmer of hope for the people Yemen, the World Bank has pledged to commit $400 million of aid to Yemen, starting immediately. But, for the next generation of Yemeni children, where over 3.4 million have been forced out of education and the only employment is behind the barrel of a gun, the future looks bleak.
Executive Summary – Tensions Flaring in Waters Around Yemen
Media reports have been relating recent events involving shore to ship attack attempts against US naval vessels patrolling in Yemeni waters. These follow a previous successful attack against a UAE logistics vessel, which saw it damaged and withdrawn from the Saudi-led campaign. The attacks are believed to have been carried out by Houthi rebels although they have strenuously denied any involvement. The most recent strikes are believed by some to be retaliation for the Saudi air strike that killed at least 140 mourners at a funeral in Sanaa on 8th October 2016. These incidents have resulted in the US Navy launching counter measures to defend themselves and conducting their own missile strikes against shore based radar sites believed to have been directing the original Houthi attacks. Iranian warships are deploying into the theatre and this is serving to ratchet tensions further. The Iranian deployment was planned and announced earlier but is now being linked to developing events.
Merchant vessels transiting the region should expect to see increased military naval and air traffic. Masters should be vigilant when cruising within range of landfall and be prepared for contact with combatant parties. Vessels moving to or from Yemeni ports must ensure situational awareness at all times and comply carefully with military instructions. MS Risk continues to monitor events and will be issuing in depth insights and forecasts in the coming days.
Due to the value of the export terminal and its proximity to Mukalla port, Ash Shihr terminal is considered high risk. MS Risk advises extreme caution for vessels traveling to this port.
In late April, forces loyal to Yemen’s recognised government recaptured the Ash Shihr oil terminal from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, who controlled the port for over a year. The port resumed opperations on 22 July. While no significant attempts have been made against the Ash Shihr terminal, both AQAP and IS have recently targeted nearby Mukallah port, approximately 40 miles away. Control of Mukallah was also wrested from AQAP earlier this year, and attacks agains the port have been conducted both on land and at sea.
On 2 August, Hadi government security forces alongside coalition forces disrupted a coordinated attack that was planned by AQAP on al Mukalla port. AQAP militants attempted to attack the port with artillery and machine guns, while others approached the port by boat. Hadi-allied forces arrested some of the attackers, yet others managed to escape.
Nearly 80% of Yemen’s oil exports have been conducted through Ash Shihr terminal, making the port an attractive and valuable target. It may be viewed as an iconic or strategic target by local insurgents. As the port resumes normal shipping operations, there is a strong likelihood of attempts to disrupt activities both on land and at sea.
Security has been reinforced around both Ash Shirh and Mukalla ports, however pirates or militant groups attempting to conduct maritime attacks do not require a port in order to launch a skiff. This may result in a higher risk to warter-borne security in the vicinities nearest to the ports. Shipmasters and owners should remain aware of the situation at all times, including changes to protocol when entering Yemeni maritime waters or ports. It is anticipated that friendly naval forces will increase their presence which will lead to increased boardings, inspections and overall protection/deterrence however this has not been confirmed yet.