Houthis offer shippers a “way out” for safe Red Sea transit

Yemen’s Houthi militia have given international shipping interests a new option if they want to be guaranteed safe passage through the Red Sea: they can renounce Israel in writing.

It’s not an offer that many international shipping companies are likely to take up, but it does expand the range of ships that the Houthis will feel justified in attacking. Previously the Houthis had said that ships which were “linked” to Israel would be subject to attack. The complexities of international shipping made it hard to establish such links, and it had got to the stage – with 24 attacks recorded by US forces in the area since the current outbreak of Red Sea violence in November 2023 – that the Houthis would attack any ship which caught its fancy, sometimes with no more excuse than an AIS being turned off.

Now the list of legitimate targets will include any ship whose owners or operators have failed to denounce the Israeli state. Some tankers in the region have set their destination as “Armed Guards Aboard”, while others have tried the destination “vessel no contact Israel”.

In a statement on social media on Sunday January 7th, Houthi leader Mohammed Ali Al-Houthi said that ships wishing to pass by Yemen should adopt a more stringent formulation of this message: not just “no contact with Israel,” but “no relationship with Israel.”

“Every ship that goes through the Red Sea, Bab El-Mandeb, or the Arabian Sea should broadcast the words, ‘we have no relationship with Israel,” he said. “This is a simple and low-cost solution that will incur no financial expenditures for any business. This measure does not need the militarization of the Red Sea and will not jeopardize international navigation.”

Al-Houthi added that if ships send this message falsely and then visit Israel anyway, they would be blacklisted and targeted on their next voyage.

In a separate address, Al-Houthi said that the recent incident involving the Maersk Hangzhou would result in “an indefinite state of conflict” with the US Navy warships in the region.

During an attempted Houthi attack on the Maersk Hangzhou, four Houthi boat crews approached to within 20 metres of the ship and opened fire, according to US CENTCOM.

Maersk Hangzhou had sent a distress call and carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower and the destroyer USS Gravely sent helicopters to the scene. CENTCOM said that the aircrews attempted to ward off the small craft with verbal warnings, but the attackers opened fire on the US Navy helicopters. The helicopter crews returned fire, destroying three of the boats and killing their crews. Al-Houthi described the exchange of fire as “murder” and called for the American helicopter aircrews to stand trial in Yemen.