Date: Monday, 21 May 2018
Over the course of the enduring civil war in Yemen, the Houthi rebels have, on various occasions, fired missiles at ships in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. In January, the group even threatened to block the entire waterway.
Bab el-Mandeb is strategically important for the West. Four million barrels of oil are transported through it each day. A full blockade of the gateway would severely harm the European and global economy. Despite the Houthis’ January statement, though, a blockade of the strait would be strategically unwise for the rebels and their alleged Iranian backers.
Apart from the debate about the rebels’ ability to close off the strait, a full blockade does not serve the group’s interest at this time. Despite Western arms sales and operational support to Saudi Arabia, actual involvement and interest in the conflict has been limited. The Houthis are also dominating the PR battle in the West. Alleged human rights abuses by Saudi Arabia against civilians in rebel-controlled areas make up the dominant discourse in the Western media; human rights groups have staged protests against the Saudis; and even US senators have debated to limit arms sales to Saudi Arabia because of the conflict.
A blockade of the strait could change the current dynamics that are currently benefiting the Houthis. Due to the economic costs of the blockade, pressure on Saudi Arabia would cease, the conflict would be placed high on Western agendas and it could consequently pave the way for confrontation with the Houthis. This would likely swing the balance of power in favour of the Saudi-led Arab coalition. A possible blockade would also discredit the Houthis and the human rights activists in Western popular discourse, legitimising Saudi efforts against the group and its discourse of “Houthi terrorism”.
The counterargument, that a Houthi blockade of Bab el-Mandeb would actually increase Western pressure on Saudi Arabia in favour of the rebels, seems unlikely. Countries like the US and Britain have strong economic incentives to avoid a dispute with Riyadh. The connection between the Houthis and Iran, their main sponsor, also makes it unlikely that a hawkish White House would side with Iran-linked rebels over its longstanding allies in Riyadh. An attack by the Houthis on Western ships would also leave political leaders no choice but to take military action against the group and its “terrorism”. This was indicated in 2016, when the US retaliated militarily against the rebels after they had unsuccessfully targeted an American vessel in the strait.
Similarly, a blockade would not be in the interest of Iran, the Houthis’ alleged backer and provider of anti-ship missiles and sea mines necessary to block the strait. Regardless of the fact that the Islamic Republic would never openly admit to any responsibility for a possible blockade, the Iran-hawks in the American administration would point at Tehran unequivocally as the instigator of the operation. Bolstered by any incident, these actors — such as National Security Advisor John Bolton — could then step up their calls for regime change in Iran.
With the US exiting the Iran nuclear deal, Tehran has also become more dependent on European countries to salvage (parts of) the deal and retain (some) foreign investment for its economy. Being linked to a manoeuvre that would harm the European economy would endanger this crucial relationship. Even if the deal could end up being scrapped altogether, it would be strategically unwise to push the European leaders closer to a combative American administration. Furthermore, Iranian policy towards the Strait of Hormuz, even more important for the global economy, is telling. Despite Tehran’s frequent warnings to close off the strategic choke point it has never actually followed through on these threats.
Rather than pursuing a full blockade of the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, the rebels and their supporters, including those allegedly in Iran, should stick to their current policy of discriminate targeting of mostly Saudi and UAE vessels.