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Red Sea Crisis

Houthi leader makes demands of Red Sea ships

Houthi release Houthi Rebels hijacking car carrier Galaxy Leader
Houthi rebel leader Muhammad Ali Al-Houthi has ordered his forces not to fire on vessels transiting the Red Sea which declare they have no connection to Israel.

In a post on Twitter, Al-Houthi said that ships which announce “We have no relationship with Israel” will be granted safe passage by the rebel group through the Red Sea, Arabian Sea and Bab al-Mandab strait.

The post legitimises a trend seen in the Red Sea region of vessels using their AIS destination to broadcast messages aimed at deterring Houthi attacks. Al-Houthi posted example images of an AIS regional map with container ship Xin He Lu 1 showing a destination of “VL No Contact Israel”.

The post called the measure an easy and inexpensive means of avoiding trouble. Al-Houthi warned that should vessels use the tactic to deceive the group and go on to call at an Israeli port, they will be blacklisted and “fall into [Houthi forces’] hands next time”.

“This step does not require militarizing the Red Sea and will not harm international navigation,” said Al-Houthi.

The impact of the declaration on risk perception in the region is likely to be mixed and highly political. The Houthis are designated as a terrorist group by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and are the target of sanctions by the US and the UK.

The latest post reiterates claims that the Houthi objective in attacking merchant ships in the Red Sea is to support the people of Palestine by targeting ships destined for or with links to Israel. The first merchant ship targeted by the rebels in November 19 2023 was Galaxy Leader, a ship with ownership ties to Israeli shipping businessman Rami Unger. Galaxy Leader was hijacked; the vessel and its crew are still being held in Yemen.

In the over 20 attacks by the rebel group on merchant ships since November 19, many of the vessels involved have no clear ties to Israeli interests or a destination in Israel, and yet have been variously targeted by missiles, drones, and small boats.

UKMTO shared a report of a suspicious approach on a merchant vessel by two small craft on January 8 off the coast of Yemen, and another instance of six small craft approaching within a nautical mile of a merchant ship on January 6 in the same area. US Central Command said USS Laboon shot down in self defense an unmanned aerial vehicle launched from a Houthi-controlled area of Yemen on January 6.  

The situation in the Red Sea has led many shipping companies to reroute their vessels to avoid the area altogether, instead sailing via the Cape of Good Hope, adding significant time and fuel cost to voyages. Maersk said on January 5 that its vessels would avoid the area for the foreseeable future, apparently extending an existing pause on Red Sea transits.