The conflict in Yemen has the potential to spill over into shipping, and while it is unlikely that international commercial trade will be a direct target, data reveals why governments are so keen to keep the Bab al-Mandeb Strait secure.
There have been 14 recorded incidents of ships being subject to attack in relation to the conflict between the Yemeni government and Houthi rebel group, according to Lloyd’s List Intelligence casualty data.
Of those where the Houthis are understood to be responsible, five foreign ships were either targeted or became collateral damage.
Security analysts say the Houthis are highly selective about their targets because they are keen to be perceived and recognised by the international community as more than rogue, non-state actors.
The Houthis are more focused on military ships or military ships affiliated with the Saudi-led coalition, and occasionally tankers, which they accuse of ‘looting’ Yemeni oil, Martin Kelly of risk management and security consultancy EOS Risk Group, explained to Lloyd’s List.
For example, in November last year, the Panama-flagged tanker Pratika (IMO: 9288875) escaped damage after being targeted by a drone attack at the Al-Dhaba Ash Shihr oil terminal. Houthi rebels reportedly warned Pratika before striking.
However, most Houthi drone attacks at oil terminals last year purposefully targeted port infrastructure, and not the vessels in the vicinity.
“This is because this commercial war is not about deterring trade, but about controlling it,” says Mr Makhlouf, Middle East and North Africa analyst at Risk Intelligence.
“Neither the Houthis, nor the PLC [the executive body of Yemen’s internationally recognised government] or other factions, are interested in scaring the ships away, but rather they want to force the industry to trade through them.”
It is difficult to assess Yemen’s seaborne trade as many opt to operate under the radar.
In 2022, some 1,008 inbound sailings into Yemen’s ports were tracked, the majority of which were made to ports under the Yemeni government’s control, according to Lloyd’s List Intelligence vessel-tracking data.
The Houthis have threatened ships trying to take oil from non-Houthi controlled ports as they do not benefit from these revenues.
Last year 15 crude tankers called at ports held by Yemen’s government, compared to 22 in 2021. Only one crude tanker arrived at the port after the drone attacks on oil facilities in the province of Hadramout in November 2022.
The risk of collateral damage from the conflict continues to be a possibility for the vessels that travel in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.
The Automatic Identification System messages emitted by ships speaks volumes to how ships perceive the security situation. There are many instances of masters manually inputting variations of ‘ARMED GUARDS ON BOARD’ rather than the vessel’s destination as a warning to potential perpetrators.
Safe maritime navigation is critical in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, which connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden.
Over 22,500 transits were made via this sea passage in 2022, according to Lloyd’s List Intelligence vessel-tracking data. That equates to, on average, 62 merchant ships passing through the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait daily.
Last year there were 864 instances of merchant vessels switching off their AIS (‘going dark’), while passing through the waters bordering Yemen, according to our data.
There has always been a threat to vessels linked to the Saudi-led coalition, and this increases as hostilities do, but parallel to this are the possibility of attacks against port infrastructure in Saudi Arabia itself.
Saudi Arabia’s southern ports, such as Jizan, would be the most likely target. Commercial ships called at the port of Jizan 171 times in 2022, 95% of which were beneficially owned by non-Saudi and non-United Arab Emirates businesses.
It is therefore not just the conflict between the Houthis and Saudi-led coalition that is of concern in Yemen, but the potential for military action to spill over into the wider region in future.
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