The continuous attacks on commercial vessels transiting the Southern Red Sea are an alarming trend that has been troubling the industry, causing alternations in routes and disruptions in global supply chains.
Why are vessels targeted?
he Houthis, also known as Ansar Allah (Supporters of God), are a rebel group based in Yemen. They emerged in the early 2000s as a Zaidi Shia Muslim movement in northern Yemen and gained prominence in the aftermath of the 2011 Yemeni Revolution.
In retaliation to Israel’s attacks on Gaza following the October 7 Hamas attack, the Houthis in Yemen have been targeting ships navigating through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. Since then, fears of a further escalation in the Middle East have been troubling the global community.
Further escalation is especially true considering that Iran’s Defence Minister, Mohammad Reza Ashtiani, has warned that a planned United States-backed multinational task force to protect shipping in the Red Sea would face “extraordinary problems.”.
However, on December 18, the U.S. Department of Defence launched Operation Prosperity Guardian, bringing together multiple countries to jointly address security challenges in the southern Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.
According to Dryad Global, despite calls for measures akin to those used to combat Somali piracy being deployed in the Red Sea, the appetite for a large-scale intervention in the Red Sea remains uncertain unless the threat continues to escalate.
Meanwhile, the attacks in the area also have a financial impact on shipping, in the sense that war risk insurance premiums for Red Sea voyages have reportedly increased after the multiple attacks.
MSC confirmed that on 26 December 2023 the container ship MSC UNITED VIII was attacked while transiting the Red Sea. The vessel informed a nearby coalition task force warship of the attack and as instructed engaged in evasive maneuvers.
The incident occurred on 26 December 2023 at approximately 12:25 UTC while the MSC vessel was enroute from King Abdullah Port, Saudi Arabia to Karachi, Pakistan. Currently, all crew are safe with no reported injuries and a thorough assessment of the vessel is being conducted.
Our first priority remains protecting the lives and safety of our seafarers, and until their safety can be ensured MSC will continue to reroute vessels booked for Suez transit via the Cape of Good Hope.
… said the company in a statement
Meanwhile, United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations Authority had earlier reported two incidents of explosions in the Red Sea off of the coast of Yemen involving missiles and drones near a vessel. It also said there were no reported injuries.
— United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) (@UK_MTO) December 26, 2023
Additionally, a chemical tanker, the MV Chem Pluto, was hit by an Iranian attack drone on December 23, in the Indian Ocean, marking the seventh Iranian attack on commercial shipping since 2021, according to CNN.
The incident occurred approximately 200 nautical miles from the coast of India, causing no casualties, and a fire on board the tanker has been extinguished. The ship, with 20 Indian crew members and one Vietnamese on board, was en route from Saudi Arabia to India. Luckily, no casualties were reported.
Reports also indicate that a commercial crude oil tanker, MV Sai Baba, flying the Gabon flag was targeted on 24 December by a drone strike; however, the crew of twenty-five Indian nationals was fortunately unharmed.
Seeking Good Hope
Around the 15th of December, attacks rose to an alarming rate. Both Maersk and Hapag-Lloyd reported incidents on December 15th where one of their container vessels was targeted by a missile near the Bab al-Mandab Strait. A day before this incident, a Norwegian tanker got struck by a missile, while on the 14th, two other vessels were targeted by the Houthis.
As a result, major shipping companies have altered their routes in order not to transit the area, including MSC, Hapag-Lloyd, Maersk, CMA CGM, OOCL, and HMM. Their decisions collectively reflect a shared commitment to safeguarding crews and vessels amid heightened security risks in the region.
Alas, the Red Sea is a vital waterway linking Europe and Asia, with about 12% of global trade passing through. Shipping, though this route is bound to cause major delays. Case in point, shipping companies such as MSC and Maersk informed this week that they are already looking at ways to resume safe transits in the Red Sea.
Using the Cape of Hope alternative route adds thousands of extra miles and extra time, as well as extra costs and emissions. For instance, a few days after the major companies’ decision, the IKEA furniture company issued a statement claiming that there could be delays and availability constraints for certain products.
Furthermore, according to Reuters, the Panama Canal Authority said on December 21st that it has not seen a notable traffic increase due to the situation in the Red Sea.
Apart from companies, shipping organisations and authorities are keeping a close eye on the situation, and their concern keeps rising as attacks fail to halt. Many major organisations, such as the IMO, have officially expressed concern and have asked for immediate action to protect seafarers and vessels transiting the area.
The Secretary-General of the IMO, Kitack Lim, issued a second statement on the matter on December 18 to inform the IMO that it is keeping a close eye on the situation, and an Extraordinary Meeting of the Djibouti Code of Conduct (DCoC) National Focal Points was held to discuss how to deal with the increasing threats in the area.
The Suez Canal Authority has also stated that it is actively monitoring the situation, emphasising the need for vigilance. Meanwhile, WSC, ICS, ECSA, BIMCO, IUMI, INTERCARGO, ITF, and other organisations issued statements that demanded action to protect seafarers and the security of the industry in general.
Furthermore, in early December, the Panama Maritime Administration strongly recommended all Panama-flagged vessels take all security measures and avoid transiting the Red Sea, with increased caution through the Strait of Bab al Mandeb.
A few days later, the Liberian Registry advised that Liberian-flagged vessels transiting the Southern Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden are to increase their security level to security level 3 and implement all protective measures.
Industry associations BIMCO, ICS, CLIA, IMCA, INTERCARGO, INTERTANKO, and OCIMF have come together to publish security guidance applicable to navigating in the Southern Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.
The guidance emphasises the importance of conducting a thorough ship- and voyage-specific threat and risk assessment, considering any additional advice from the ship’s flag state, before passing through the area in question.
The guidance also highlights that the maritime threat from the Houthi forces is greater in the vicinity of the Yemeni Red Sea coastline, where they are occasionally present.
In the event of any incident, suspicious activity, or concern:
- Report any suspicious activity or concerns to the UKMTO at firstname.lastname@example.org +44 2392 222060
- Reports of any suspicious activity and concerns in the North Arabian Sea and the Gulf region may also be made to the European led EMASoH: Voluntary Reporting Scheme | EMASoH (emasoh-agenor.org) or call +971 52 117 1500
- If under attack, please contact US Naval Forces in Bahrain directly on +973 1785 3879
Additionally, the Panama Maritime Administration has issued guidelines for risk mitigation, which can be found here.
As a vital waterway linking the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea serves as a linchpin in international shipping. Limiting Red Sea shipping is sure to cause disruptions to major trade routes between Europe and Asia, necessitating alternative and longer routes, thereby increasing fuel consumption and shipping costs.
Furthermore, the Red Sea’s significance in the transportation of oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG) could result in disruptions, leading to energy shortages and price fluctuations. Generally, industries reliant on timely deliveries through the Red Sea will face supply chain disruptions, affecting sectors from manufacturing to retail on a global scale.
It remains to be seen how the global community will handle the situation in order to resolve it and prevent further escalation. In any case, swift and wise action is needed.