The Red Sea, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, faces unprecedented risks as Houthi rebels launch escalating attacks on commercial vessels.

Houthi Motives and the Murky Web of Attacks:

The Houthis, backed by Iran, claim their strikes target vessels with Israeli ties. However, experts highlight the indiscriminate nature of attacks, raising concerns about wider objectives. The opacity of shipping – where ownership, operation, and crew nationality may differ – further complicates the targeting picture. Major shipping giants like Maersk have opted for the longer Cape of Good Hope route, bypassing the once-vital Suez Canal.

Houthi Movement:

The Houthi movement, officially known as Ansar Allah, is a Shia Islamist political and military organization that emerged from Yemen in the 1990s. It is predominantly made up of Zaidi Shias, with their namesake leadership being drawn largely from the Houthi tribe.

Global Economic Crossroads:

The Red Sea, carrying one-third of all container traffic, stands as a crucial artery for global trade. Disruptions here create a ripple effect impacting everything from energy supplies to consumer goods. Oil and LNG, in particular, rely heavily on this passage, with 12% of seaborne oil and 8% of LNG traversing the Suez Canal. Avoiding the Red Sea translates to longer voyages, higher fuel costs (up to $1 million per round trip), and rising insurance premiums. Shipping giants like CMA CGM have already doubled Asian-European rates, reflecting the escalating costs.

Echoes of Past Disruptions:

Houthi attacks are not an isolated incident. Tensions in the Strait of Hormuz in 2019 and the Suez Canal blockage in 2021 are recent reminders of the fragility of global shipping. While consumer price increases haven’t yet materialized significantly, experts like CFR Fellow Zongyuan Zoe Liu anticipate Europe being hit first due to its reliance on the Red Sea-Suez Canal route.

Navigating a Delicate Security Landscape:

The US leads a coalition to protect vessels, but its effectiveness is debated. Skeptics argue that a purely defensive approach can’t deter attacks from drone-wielding Houthis. Others propose offensive action against Houthi positions, citing successful US strikes in 2016. However, escalating tensions with Iran, which has ships in the Red Sea, and the Houthis’ willingness for conflict with the US complicate any offensive maneuvers. Every option, as CFR’s Bruce Jones warns, carries “serious downsides.”


The Red Sea stands at a crossroads. Houthi attacks threaten not only freedom of navigation but also the delicate balance of global trade and regional security. Finding a solution demands diplomatic finesse, addressing the root causes of the Yemen conflict, and ensuring the safe passage of vital goods in an increasingly turbulent world.

Where Ships Are Being Targeted:

Avoiding the Red Sea Means Much Longer Shipping Routes