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Smart Take | Houthis Continue Attacks in the Red Sea

January 22, 20242:18

Despite dozens of US and British strikes on Houthi targets in Yemen, the group has vowed to continue its assaults on shipping traffic coming through the Red Sea. Former Wilson Fellow, Asher Orkaby, provides insights on the economic impact of the trade disruptions in the Red Sea. He also talks about how the Houthis use anti-US/Israeli sentiment to fuel their own popular legitimacy and how Iran uses the group to promote its regional, strategic vision.

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  • The Red Sea attacks on shipping are not about Israel, they're not about Gaza, but rather they're about events in Yemen. Specifically, the Houthis saw the popular protests of October of 2023 as a golden opportunity to solidify their popular legitimacy in the country, their popular legitimacy leading into negotiations with Saudi Arabia to end a nine year civil war.

    The Houthis understand that the one linchpin that can unite the entirety of the Yemeni population is this anti-Israel, anti-US trope. It's something that they founded their movement upon "Death to America and Death to Israel." This is certainly something that they've made it a very important part of their political ideology and one in which they can use this as a vehicle towards popular legitimacy.

    Since 2015, in Yemen, the number of Iranian munitions, political, diplomatic support given to the Houthis specifically have increased exponentially. The Houthis fit into the larger Iranian regional vision for destabilizing the Gulf countries and creating chaos by supporting, marginalized and militant populations across the Middle East. The Houthis, Hamas, Syria and other militant groups in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East are supported by Iran specifically because of their ability to stoke chaos amongst the Gulf nations.

    The economic consequences of attacks in the Red Sea have been measured in the past few months, with a number of shipping companies rerouting their ships away from the southern Red Sea and  around the Horn of Africa. The long term closure of the southern Red Sea and the Bab el Mandeb could have untold economic consequences for the Suez Canal region and for global commerce more generally.


Asher Orkaby

Asher Orkaby

Research Scholar, Transregional Institute, Princeton University
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Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more