Why Houthi attacks in the Red Sea are so damaging to trade

Tensions in the Red Sea continue to rise and on Wednesday Yemen’s Houthi rebels fired a barrage of drones and missiles at ships in the Red Sea, with the US and British navies reacting quickly to shoot down the projectiles.

This naval engagement is the latest major escalation on a busy route that is key to global trade. Yet despite the conflict, trade continues, even as the risk to merchant sailors grows.

“Trade continues to flow through these waters,” John Stawpert, a senior official at the International Chamber of Shipping, told CTV News Channel on Wednesday. “Despite the unacceptable threat the Houthis pose to the lives of our sailors.”

Still, the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) warned vessels transiting the Red Sea to “transit with caution and report any suspicious activity.”


HOW IMPORTANT IS THE RED SEA ROUTE?

The Red Sea links the Middle East and Asia to Europe through the Suez Canal and its narrow Bab el-Mandeb Strait, which at its narrowest point is just 29 kilometers, limits traffic to two channels for inbound and outbound shipments.

Nearly 12 percent of world trade passes through this route, according to Stawpert, and it is a key pipeline for trade between Asia and Europe, with products and ships of all kinds passing through the seawater gateway.

“These are oil shipments. These are bulk shipments of grain. Materials used in the construction industry,” Stawpert says. “Any merchandise you can imagine that can be placed in a container.”


WILL SHIPMENTS BE CANCELED?

A U.S.-led coalition has stepped up patrols in the Red Sea to try to prevent attacks on shipping, and Canada and other allies are calling on the Houthis to cease attacks, warning that they will be held responsible for escalating aggression.

Last week, Maersk, a huge Danish shipping company, announced it was suspending shipments through the route “until further notice.”

However, Stawpert believes a widespread cancellation of shipments is “very unlikely,” even though “innocent sailors” are being attacked by Houthi rebels, who claim the attacks are aimed at ending the Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip.

“Navies in the southern Red Sea have provided an umbrella of security,” Stawpert says. “I believe we will continue to see trade flow through this vital sea route.”


SCALE OF ATTACKS UNSEEN IN ‘GENERATIONS’

The significant escalation of attacks is “absolutely unacceptable,” says Stawpert, who also warns that the nature of the attacks also raises growing concerns.

“These are missile attacks, these are suicide drones, aggressive approaches by helicopters, skiffs and heavily armed people.”

He also warned that despite the increased security presence of the US-led Operation Prosperity Guardian, a multinational effort to protect shipping in the region, attacks are reaching a dangerous new level.

“It’s a scale we haven’t seen in two generations, in terms of maritime security.”


With files from the Associated Press

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