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 These follow a previous successful attack against a UAE logistics vessel, which saw it damaged and withdrawn from the Saudi-led campaign.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.
We assess that the situation in Yemen has gone beyond the scope of aid. Yemen is facing the catastrophic reality of famine unless people can return to the fields, imports resume enabling markets to trade at normal prices. The United Nations estimates 9,000 casualties, including over 3,000 civilian deaths in the Yemeni conflict from March 2015 to 2016. The Houthis, a rebel group composed of Shiite Muslims, feel marginalized in the majority Sunni country and have loyalties to an ex-president of Yemen. The situation led to one of the world’s deadliest yet least reported conflicts.
One third of fighters in Yemen are children, many of whom have been captured and are now subject to an agreement between the warring sides. It is unclear how many child prisoners are being held. According to Yemeni political sources Houthis, the government submitted a list of almost 7,000 prisoners they say are held by the other side. Children can be seen manning check points in many cities in Yemen, recruited by the warring parties in the conflict. The UN’s child agency UNICEF counted 738 minors were recruited with children as young as ten taking up arms. It marks a five-fold increase from 2014. However, they admitted this was a conservative estimate and there were likely many more.
A Saudi-led coalition has been carrying out airstrikes against Houthi militias, who are aligned with Iran. The airstrikes have been condemned by the U.N. human rights chief for killing civilians. The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon publicly acknowledged on Thursday that he removed the Saudi-led coalition currently bombing Yemen from a blacklist of child killers (72 hours after it was published) due to a financial threat to defund United Nations programs. Saudi Arabia denies the threats. The U.N.’s 2015 “Children and Armed Conflict” report originally listed the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen under “parties that kill or maim children” and “parties that engage in attacks on schools and/or hospitals.” The report, which was based on the work of U.N. researchers in Yemen, attributed 60 percent of the 785 children killed and 1,168 injured to the bombing coalition.
Children growing up in Yemen face multiple threats. If they escape recruitment by one of the warring factions, they may be one of the victims of the fighting or the deepening humanitarian crisis. Children are disproportionately the victims of the war. Civilian infrastructures are not safe from attacks with schools and hospitals finding themselves in the firing line. In 2015 alone, 900 children were killed and 1,300 wounded. The UN calculates that six children have been killed or maimed every day since March. Yemen is in the throes of an acute humanitarian crisis. According to UNICEF 178,600 children under 5 were treated for severe acute malnutrition and another 10,000 Yemeni children died from preventable diseases in 2015, due to what the UN called ‘the total collapse of the health system’.
Since the Arab Spring in 2011, Yemen has fallen off the media’s radar but it has a strong democratic movement which is being hampered by third world conditions. Already one of the poorest countries in the Middle East before the fighting began in March 2015, Yemen has always relied heavily on imports. Around 90% of its food comes from abroad, including 85% of its staple grain crops. Airports, ports and land routes have now been forced to close, either due to damage or blockades. A food crisis seems to be pushing almost a quarter of the population to starvation. Of its 24 million people, over 80% are in need of assistance in order to survive. Yemen, once known as “Happy Arabia” it is heading towards poverty, malnutrition in one of the biggest crises of our time. The security to citizens, visitors, organizations and infrastructures cannot be guaranteed. Yemen is currently the poorest country within the Arab world. As well as the lack of supplies coming into the country, Taiz, one of its biggest cities, has been sealed off since September 2015. This has resulted in the loss of livelihoods for tens of thousands of families. Production has declined and mass internal displacement has severely disrupted an already limited agriculture. The overall scenario caused prices of basic commodities to sky-rocket. The cost of a minimum staple food basket for an average family has doubled since the crisis began. The number of people begging on the street has increased, while food prices are through the roof. Even when other essential goods are available, people are being forced to travel long distances to get them. Families are travelling up to 30km on foot, along treacherous mountain routes, just to reach the nearest affordable market. For those not able to make the trip, the only hope is to count on the good nature of neighbors, skip meals, beg or starve.
26 April—On Monday, allied Yemeni and Emirati forces retook Ash Shihr terminal, Yemen’s largest oil export terminal from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The move comes a day after forces swept the militant group from their nearby stronghold in the port city of Mukalla, capital of the Hadramawt province.
The air strikes were carried out in coordination with a ground offensive in militant-controlled territory further west. Statements released by coalition officials said that nearly 2,000 Yemeni and Emirati troops advanced into Mukalla, taking control of its maritime port and airport, and setting up checkpoints.
The coalition also stated that 800 al Qaeda members were killed in the battle to retake the city and the oil terminal. Yet contrary to this statement, residents in the region said that the number killed was unlikely, adding that the group withdrew largely without a fight. One military officer said, “We entered the city centre and were met by no resistance from al-Qaeda militants who withdrew west.” Residents say that local clerics and tribesmen had been in talks with the group to exit quietly. It is believed that the fighters withdrew to the neighbouring Shabwa province.
The recapture of this area is a big win for coalition forces. Ash Shihr terminal, closed since its capture by AQAP fighters in 2015, is the export site for nearly 80% of Yemen’s oil reserves. Nearby Mukalla port, however, has remained open, and reports indicate that AQAP was pocketing around $2 million a day in customs revenues.
The advances against the militant group are indicative of a shift within the Saudi-led coalition. For the past year, the coalition has targeted the Houthi rebels, a group which captured the Yemeni capital of Sana’a and caused the government to go into exile, ultimately moving administrative operations to Aden. However, a tenuous ceasefire has been in place between the coalition and the rebel group since 11 April. The coalition has used the truce to target Al Qaeda strongholds in the region. The militant group, considered one of the most active and dangerous branches of Al Qaeda, had taken advantage of the power vacuum to develop a mini-state around Mukalla.
The coalition is now advancing on AQAP-held towns along the 370-mile coastline between Mukalla and Aden. It appears that militants are seeking to mount a stronger resistance in the region. The push against AQAP is being led by the United Arab Emirates, which has been training and arming local recruits for several months.
Yemen’s civil war has killed more than 6,200 people, displaced more than 2.5 million people. It has caused a humanitarian catastrophe in one of the world’s poorest countries. UN brokered peace talks between the Yemeni government and Houthi rebels are currently underway in Kuwait. Al Qaeda has not been invited to participate.
On 3 May, at least 20 troops from the Saudi-led coalition came ashore in Aden on what military officials called a “reconnaissance” mission. Their nationalities are unknown. The troops landed in a central area between Aden’s neighbourhood of al-Mansoura and the airport. It is unclear whether they arrived by boat or helicopter. This marks the first ground landing of troops since the coalition began their air campaign against the Houthi rebels on 26 March. The troops carried assault rifles and topography equipment and had access to at least four vehicles.
The objective of the reconnaissance mission appears two-fold: first, Yemeni military officials say the coalition troops will train forces loyal to President Hadi, who has been in exile in Riyadh since March. Yemeni officials said that streamlining the militiamen fighting against the Houthis in Aden would be a critical step in developing a coherent force. This would aid coalition ground forces should they send troops into the region. Second, the troops will try to identify an area that could serve as a “green zone” — an area from which Hadi’s exiled government can operate upon their return to Yemen. Among the most likely locations is the the al-Bureqah area west of Aden.
Saudi officials denied that a major ground operation was under way, or that it had put non-Yemeni forces on the ground in Aden. However the kingdom has warned on more than one occasion that a ground operation could follow air campaign. Reports suggest that Egypt will be a likely participant should any ground offensive take place in Yemen.
The troops landed amid intense fighting in Aden. Days of heavy clashes have been reported in central districts of Mualla and Khor Maksar, near the main commercial port, as well as in the city’s north, around a military camp and the airport. Houthi reinforcements were reportedly sent in from al-Dhalea and Abyan to fight the southern militias.
On Monday, the Saudi-led coalition targeted several airports across Yemen. The coalition reportedly conducted 150 strikes on Aden’s airport. Airstrikes also targeted airports in Hodeida and Sana’a. In downtown Sana’a, fighter jets struck al-Sabeen Square. The square was once where Yemen held military parades. The area was targeted to prevent the Houthi militants from using it as an airport for Iranian planes. Further strikes were aimed at the Houthi stronghold of Saada, and in Marib, where the coalition airdropped weapons to tribes allied to Hadi’s government.
Meanwhile, Senegal announced it would contribute troops to back the Saudi-led coalition. Senegalese Foreign Affairs Minister Mankeur Ndiaye said his country is sending 2,100 soldiers to help back the Saudi-led intervention. Senegal becomes the first sub-Saharan African country to contribute soldiers to the effort. The nation has received significant financial investments from Saudi Arabia in recent years. Senegalese President Macky Sall met last month with the Saudi king, who sought troop contributions at that time.
The international monitoring group Human Rights Watch (HRW) says that credible evidence show that the Saudi-led coalition “used banned cluster munitions supplied by the United States in airstrikes against Houthi forces in Yemen.” They add, “Cluster munitions pose long-term dangers to civilians and are prohibited by a 2008 treaty adopted by 116 countries, though not Saudi Arabia, Yemen, or the United States.” HRW evidence since mid-April shows that these munitions were used in coalition airstrikes in the Saada governorate, the Houthi stronghold bordering Saudi Arabia. The bombs appeared to land on a cultivated plateau, within 600 meters of several dozen buildings in four to six village. Saudi Arabia’s coalition spokesman was not immediately available to comment on the report, but had previously stated that the kingdom was not using cluster bombs.
The fighting in Yemen has left more than 1,200 people dead, mostly civilians, and at least 300,000 residents have been displaced. In the midst of a humanitarian crisis, the UN has warned that key infrastructure, including water supplies, food, health services and telecommunications, are on the verge of breaking down due to a major fuel shortage. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) issued a statement of extreme concern about the severe damage caused by recent coalition attacks on airports. The attacks have obstructed the delivery of humanitarian assistance and movement of humanitarian personnel. The joint statement says:
“The disruption of the key logistic infrastructure, including airports, sea ports, bridges and roads are having alarming consequences on the civilian population, and the humanitarian situation has now become catastrophic. Checkpoints by the different armed factions have obstructed the delivery of urgent medical supplies to hospitals and have prevented patients and wounded to access essential healthcare.”
Johannes van der Klaauw of the UN warned that the absence of fuel imports could further worsen the situation:
“Without fuel hospitals can’t work, ambulances can’t go out. You can’t have the water system working because water has to be pumped. The telecommunication network risks shutting down […] if something is not done in the next few days in terms of bringing fuel and food into the country, Yemen is going to come to a complete stand-still.”
On Monday, newly appointed Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said coalition countries were considering a cease-fire to allow the delivery of humanitarian aid. He said the coalition is seeking specific places to deliver humanitarian assistance, during which there will be a halt of all air operations. Al-Jubeir also warned the Houthis against exploiting any possible halt in airstrikes, saying the kingdom will resume airstrikes over any “violations” impeding the humanitarian efforts.
Today, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states will meet in Riyadh to discuss the ongoing regional crises, including Yemen. French President Francois Hollande will also attend, the first foreign leader to attend a GCC Summit since its inception in 1981.