US could unveil Red Sea protection plan this week: reports

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin is visiting the Middle East this week and, according to reports from insider US publications, he is expected to unveil a ship protection initiative in the Red Sea, enabling commercial vessels once again to sail through the Suez Canal.

The US Navy said that it intercepted 14 Houthi drones in the early hours of Saturday.

Over the weekend Denmark’s Maersk, France’s CMA CGM, Switzerland’s MSC and Germany’s Hapag-Lloyd announced that they would either be diverting their container ships around the Cape of Good Hope (MSC, Hapag-Lloyd) or pausing them (Maersk, CMA CGM) outside of the danger region.

Hapag-Lloyd had originally said that it would be pausing its ships, but yesterday Monday December 18th it said that it had decided to reroute several ships via the Cape of Good Hope, after the company held a crisis meeting to discuss Houthi attacks targeting ships in the Red Sea. “This will be done until the passage through the Suez Canal and the Red Sea will be safe again for vessels and their crews,” a Hapag-Lloyd spokesperson said.

The move by the global shipping lines, most of whose ships are sailing under “flags of convenience” rather than Danish, French, Swiss or German flags, was seen in certain quarters as an attempt to pressure the US to offer protection to all vessels sailing in the Red Sea, rather than those with direct US interests. The US late last week seemed to take the line that shipping companies such as Maersk were not the responsibility of US armed forces, but the counterpoint is that supply chains are such that the effective closure of the Suez Canal would see the US consumer and US business impacted along with all other countries involved in either exports or imports of container goods and, now, crude oil and refined oil products.

There was a feeling in Washington as the new week began that a decision to provide naval protection to ships of all flags under “Operation Prosperity Guardian”(OPG) was more likely. Maersk was thought likely to restart voyages through the Red Sea once the US authorities recognized OPG.

However, it would take time to implement OPG fully, which might be why MSC and now Hapag-Lloyd have opted to divert rather than pause there ships.

No-one really knows, yet, how many navies besides the US would be involved in Operation Prosperity Guardian, or when it would start. While the general principle – protecting ships in the Red Sea against Houthi threats – is known, what that “protection” would consist of was not clear. The US is not keen on direct attacks on the source of the drone attacks – Yemen itself, fearing that this could accelerate a move to a region wide war.

Meanwhile, the Suez Canal Authority said on Sunday December 17th that since November 19th a total of 55 ships had rerouted via the Cape of Good Hope, while 2,128 have taken the canal route as scheduled. Of more concern to outsiders would be the larger number, as the announcements by many of the world’s major shipping lines that they were either pausing or diverting their vessels could take out a significant chunk of the 350-to-500 vessels a week normally expected to pass through the canal.

SCA chairman Osama Rabie said that 77 ships crossed the canal on Sunday, including some ships belonging to shipping lines that had announced temporary diversions. Those were vessels that were already in the Red Sea region before the announcements were made.

Finally, Chinese container carrier OOCL said on Saturday December 16th that it would suspend all shipments to and from Israeli seaports “Due to operational issues, OOCL will stop cargo acceptance to and from Israel with immediate effect until further notice,” the firm said in a terse (single sentence) statement on its website. The Houthi militia has threatened to attack any ship carrying cargo to Israel. By stopping its service to Israel, OOCL appears to satisfy the Houthis’ political conditions for safe passage.

Unlike its European rivals in global container shipping, OOCL, which is owned by the Chinese state through COSCO Shipping, has not announced plans to cease navigation through the Suez Canal.