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  Opinion   Columnists  13 Jan 2024  Manish Tewari | How Houthis have taken the Gaza war to the world

Manish Tewari | How Houthis have taken the Gaza war to the world

Manish Tewari is a lawyer and a former Union minister. The views expressed are personal. Twitter handle @manishtewari
Published : Jan 13, 2024, 10:43 pm IST
Updated : Jan 13, 2024, 10:43 pm IST

The conflict between the Iran-backed Houthis and the American coalition shall have adverse ramifications.

Demonstrators hold portraits of Huthi leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi and Palestinian flags during a march in solidarity with the people of Gaza in the Huthi-controlled capital Sanaa on January 5, 2024 amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the militant Hamas group in Gaza. (Photo by MOHAMMED HUWAIS / AFP)
 Demonstrators hold portraits of Huthi leader Abdul Malik al-Houthi and Palestinian flags during a march in solidarity with the people of Gaza in the Huthi-controlled capital Sanaa on January 5, 2024 amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the militant Hamas group in Gaza. (Photo by MOHAMMED HUWAIS / AFP)

The recent attempt by the Houthis — short form for Ansar-Allah — to blockade the Red Sea has triggered a new inflection point in the Israel-Hamas conflagration. This unprecedented escalation has not only heightened regional tensions but also has introduced new stakeholders in the dispute. The continued aggression of the Houthis in spite of retaliation by the United States and other Western powers has further exacerbated the ongoing conflict, directly impacting maritime trade and by extension  the global economy.

In order to understand the Houthis and their intent behind blockading the Red Sea, some historical context is imperative. The early spread of Islam in Yemen came in the form of Zaydism, a Shiite sect, which remained prominent until the arrival of the Rasulid dynasty in Yemen. Upon their arrival, Shafi’i Sunnism became popular, resulting in the presence of two opposing groups in the region: the Zaydi-Shia and the Sunnis. This conflict continued till the advent of the Ottoman Empire in the region.

Yemen gained independence from British and Ottoman rule in 1918, forming the Mutawakkilite Kingdom. However, political instability persisted, and in 1962, a revolution led to the establishment of the Yemen Arab Republic in the north. The southern part of Yemen, formerly under British rule, gained independence as the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in 1967. The two Yemens eventually unified in 1990, forming the Republic of Yemen.

Yemen has a majority Sunni population, and the then-newly-formed country failed to maintain a balance between the different sections of the society. Shias felt that they were under-represented in the government. Moreover, the policies of the central government neglected the northern region where Shiites predominantly reside.

The rise of the Houthi movement can be traced to this dissatisfaction with the policies of the Ali Abdullah Saleh government. The Houthi rebels launched a series of uprisings in the early 2000s. However, they were brutally repressed by the government. This changed after the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring of 2011 resulted in a power vacuum in the region. The Houthis seized the opportunity to advance their agenda and seized control of the capital, Sanaa.

Consequently, an intervention by a Saudi-led coalition in 2015, seeking to restore the internationally recognised government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, began attacking the Houthis. In response, Iran, the vortex of the Shia crescent, came to the aid of the Houthis. Apart from a religious angle, Iran's involvement in Yemen is also a part of its broader regional strategy to counter its regional rivals Saudi Arabia. This compelled the United States and its Western allies to come to the aid of Saudi Arabia and President Hadi. The situation is further complicated by the presence of the Islamic State, and Al-Qaeda, aiming to take advantage of the current political instability. Thus, Yemen is a battleground between various powers, each aiming to assert its hegemony over the Middle-East.

The current Red Sea blockade is a consequence of this rivalry playing in another theatre. Iran is allied with Hamas and Hezbollah and constantly supplies them with arms to fight against Israel. In response, Israel has started building ties with Arab countries. The Abraham Accords resulted in the creation of diplomatic ties of Israel with the UAE, Morocco, Bahrain and Sudan. If the devastating attack on Israel on October 7, 2023, wouldn’t have occurred, then Israel and Saudi Arabia would have been closer to a diplomatic rapprochement. In fact, many erudite analysts of the convoluted geopolitics of the Middle East believe that the objective of the Hamas attack was to subvert and demolish any possibility of a Saudi-Israel rapprochement which the Hamas believes had it fructified would have permanently taken the Palestinian issue off the Middle Eastern table. 

The multiple attacks on October 7, 2023, not only jeopardised Israel’s ties with Saudi Arabia, but has also resulted in a regional conflict. In response to the attacks on its citizens, Israel has launched a brutal invasion of Gaza, and conducted airstrikes in Lebanon. This has resulted in the Houthi blockading the Red Sea and attacking Israel/West owned shipping vessels when they approached the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait to go through the Suez Canal. In response to the increased Houthi presence, America, along with its allies, has formed a multinational coalition called Operation Prosperity Guardian.

The conflict between the Iran-backed Houthis and the American coalition shall have adverse ramifications. The Suez Canal is perhaps the most critical link that provides the maritime trade connection between the West and the East. The Red Sea route via the Suez Canal handles around 12 per cent of the global trade. From an Indian perspective, the Suez Canal reduces the distance from India to Europe by around 7,000 km. Moreover, India relies extensively upon countries such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq to meet its petroleum demands, which all come via the Red Sea Route. Any disruption of this trade route will have serious and adverse consequences and increase the geo-political risk quotient for both petroleum importing and exporting nations.   

The ongoing conflict has also severely affected the global supply chain, shipping vessels are forced to reroute and go around the Cape of Good Hope, significantly increasing the overall cost of shipping and making marine insurance even more expensive. Further adding to the woes, the prevailing instability has empowered Somali pirates to hijack cargo ships such as the recent MV Lila Norfolk, requiring naval intervention.

As Israel continues to further escalate the war by pursuing its assault on Gaza, further retaliation, interdiction and blockades by the Houthis would perhaps be the norm rather than the exception.

As both sides refuse to back down and come to the negotiating table, the possibility of a wider regional conflagration increases exponentially.

The Russian-Ukrainian conflict that adversely impacted global food and commodity markets, the Israel-Hamas conflict that threatens to close the maritime choke points and the growing tensions in the South China Sea/Western Pacific Ocean and, by extension, the broader Indo-Pacific region only serve to underscore the fragile and vulnerable nature of the integrated supply chains in a world that is interconnected and globalised in more ways than one. Is conflict really an option that humanity can or should afford in the 21st century?

Tags: manish tewari, houthi rebels, israel palestine conflict