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.
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.