24 April 2018– Saudi media is reporting that the Houthi rebels have captured nineteen oil tankers, and have prevented them from entering Hodeidah port. Mohammed Al Jaber, Saudi ambassador to Yemen and the Executive Director of the Comprehensive Humanitarian Support Center, is quoted as saying that the tankers, carrying nearly 200,000 tons of oil derivatives, and are being held in the Houthi controlled area of al-Maqţaf.
Al Jaber is quoted as identifying multiple scenarios for the seizure of the vessels. In the first, he suggests that the Houthis could extract money from the vessels, including “royalties of up to one million dollars for each ship that allows it to dock in the port, and thus prolong the war and refuelling the war effort.”
Second, al Jaber suggests that the Houthis have leveraged the humanitarian situation as a tool of war and could continue to do so. On one hand, the rebels can use the provision basic needs, including oil, as a recruitment tool toward local tribesmen. On the other hand, the seizures can be used to drive the price of black market oil. Al Jaber states, “The longer the ships are held at sea and the smaller the supply at home, the more a $1 a barrel of oil derivatives can be sold for $10 on the black market.” Hospitals, commercial centres, factories, or even individuals would be subject to extortionate rates.
Some sources add that the ambassador suggested a third scenario: the Houthis could plan to destroy the tankers, causing major environmental damage to the Red Sea. In late 2017 and early 2018, the Houthis threatened international traffic in the narrow waterways near Bab-al-Mandab Strait, and stated they would start attacking vessels if the Saudi Coalition attempted to recapture Hodeidah port. Jaber has added that the Houthis have been using Hodeidah port as a tool of war for years, adding that the rebels also use the port as a financial resource and a location to smuggle Iranian weapons into Yemen.
For their part, the Houthis have issued a statement claiming the accumulation of tankers is not for “the purpose of detention”, but as a result of limited capacity at Hodeidah port. They stated that the Saudi coalition closure of Ras Issa oil port since the end of June 2017 has caused pressure on Hodeidah port, which has a capacity of 5 berths for general goods and containers. “For oil tankers, the port has two dolphin berths for docking, one of which receives oil carriers with a capacity of only 5,000 tons.”
The Houthi statement accused the Arab coalition of exacerbating the crisis of the accumulation of oil tankers at the port Hodeidah, “since it granted the tankers entry permits since the beginning of April.” They added “[The coalition is] aware of the capacity of the port, forcing the institution to receive two tankers on the commercial platform.”
The information has been reported by a single source in English-speaking media. MS Risk is staying abreast of the situation and will report as more information becomes available.