The Houthi rebels, supported by Iran, have recently launched missile attacks on cargo ships and Western military vessels in the Red Sea. This has clear ramifications for trade and markets, but what are the objectives of the attackers?

To better understand the historical and political backdrop of such disruptions, Double Take recently welcomed two longtime observers of conflicts and tactics in the region: Daniel Sobelman, assistant professor of international relations at Hebrew University and research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and Ryan Bohl, Senior Middle East and North Africa analyst at RANE, a strategic intelligence firm that advises businesses on cyber and geopolitical risk.

In Sobelman’s view, an “axis of resistance” gradually sprouted in the region over the last two decades amid widespread Middle East destabilization that allowed Iran to advance geopolitically. The resistance typified by the Red Sea attacks, Sobelman believes, aims to upend the regional order that the US has been endeavoring to achieve in the region since the 1990s.

I would say that although it definitely feels like the Houthis have just popped into our lives out of nowhere, they really have been gaining strategic clout for years … They are indigenous to the highlands of Northern Yemen and just across the border from Saudi Arabia. They started out as a religious cultural movement that opposed Saudi religious and political influence in Yemen, and they fought multiple limited wars with the Saudis in the early 2000s, which they survived. And then following the advent of the so-called Arab Spring, which was more like an Arab upheaval than a spring, they managed to gain further ground, consolidate their power, and ultimately in 2014 they took over the Yemeni capital Sana’a.

Daniel Sobelman, assistant professor of international relations, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and research fellow, Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

This advance startled and alarmed the Saudi Arabians, which assembled a coalition and launched a massive aerial offensive on the Houthis. A years-long war broke out that, in Sobelman’s view, was generally under-covered by international media, even as a Houthi drone and cruise missile strike temporarily incapacitated a significant portion of Saudi Arabia’s oil production in 2019.

In the course of this war, the Houthis became increasingly reliant on military assistance from Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah, including long-range precision-guided military hardware such as drones and ballistic missiles. And the Houthis became a testing ground for new sophisticated weapons systems.

From a strategic standpoint, from a geopolitical standpoint, the Houthis shifted the balance of power vis-a-vis Saudi Arabia over these past few years when not too many people were even paying attention. There is not that much, by the way of a literature about the Houthis exactly because of this; that not many people were really paying attention to this process.

Daniel Sobelman

From Bohl’s perspective, this chain of events caused Houthi recruitment numbers to surge inside of Yemen and led to the group positioning itself as a pro-Palestinian champion throughout the region, a regional leadership position they did not have before.

Until those conditions go away, they do not have an incentive to stop, in part because the US is not going to bring to bear the amount of force necessary to truly degrade or even destroy the Houthis’ capabilities. That is a war the US is not interested in. And certainly with things going on in Ukraine and East Asia with China, (the US) has no interest in escalating to that position. So without a massive amount of force being brought onto them and without their political imperatives being reshaped, the Houthis will keep carrying these attacks out so long as they have drones and missiles to do so.

Ryan Bohl, Senior Middle East and North Africa analyst at RANE

According to Bohl, aerial attacks can only do so much to degrade the Houthis, and the US appetite is essentially nil for a ground offensive in Yemen. Blockades and deprivation of resources have also proven to have limited effect.

The Houthis, again, are an asymmetric force that can cobble together a drone or a rocket out of stuff that you could carry on a backpack. And that is the real issue here, is that they are using a very low-tech approach to launch these attacks. So, if they were building big tanks and things like that, that required advanced components, a blockade is a lot more effective because the shipping that’s required for such systems is a lot easier to spot … Some of the rockets they can just make out of sewer pipes and things like that on the ground inside of Yemen itself, where they can make it indigenously. Other things, it can be cobbled together from consumer electronics that they can smuggle from Oman, from even Saudi Arabia. It is very hard to block a force like this that uses such low technology to carry out their attacks.

Ryan Bohl

All told, Bohl does not see an outcome of the Gaza conflict that will result in the Red Sea becoming a more predictable trade route, particularly when compared to routes around Africa or through the Mediterranean. In a time of escalating aggression in the region, Bohl believes a key tactic available to the Houthis and Iran will remain the disruption of shipping routes.

To hear more, subscribe to “Double Take” on your podcast app of choice or view the Risk in the Red Sea episode page to listen in your browser.


Jack Encarnacao

Jack Encarnacao

Research analyst, investigative, Specialist Research team

Raphael J. Lewis

Raphael J. Lewis

Head of specialist research

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