The US is to announce the launch of an expanded maritime protection force involving Arab states to combat the increasingly frequent Houthi attacks being mounted from Yemen’s ports on commercial shipping in the Red Sea.
The force, provisionally entitled Operation Prosperity Guardian, is due to be announced by the defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, when he visits the Middle East. Much like the Task Force 153 already operating out of Bahrain, the larger protection force is designed to provide reassurance to commercial shipping companies that Houthi attacks will be seen off, and that the sea remains safe for commercial shipping.
Five big shipping companies have now stopped their ships using the Red Sea in the wake of attacks mounted by Houthis in protest at Israel’s efforts to eliminate Hamas in Gaza.
The chair of the Suez Canal Authority, Lt Gen Osama Rabie, also revealed that 55 ships have been redirected around the Cape of Good Hope, a two-week longer journey than that through the Bab al-Mandab Strait south of the Suez canal. More than 20 ships have reported incidents in the past months, many around the narrow Bab al-Mandab that separates the Arabian peninsula from Africa.
The Hong Kong-based OOCL was the latest to announce a suspension, joining the French CMA CGM, the Danish Maersk, the German Hapag-Lloyd and the Italian-Swiss-owned Mediterranean Shipping Co, the world’s largest shipping company.
Maersk controls 14.8% of the global shipping containers market, and the decisions, if sustained, are collectively a hammer blow to the Egyptian economy and global transport costs. The Suez canal brought Egypt $9.5bn in 2022-23.
The US had been seeking to persuade China to join an enlarged maritime protection force being mounted out of Bahrain, but some officials believe it has secured the involvement of Jordan, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Egypt and Bahrain.
The first ship to be boarded by the Iranian-backed Houthis, the Galaxy Leader, was captured on 19 November and is still in the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeidah. Since then attacks have been mounting. The USS Carney shot down 14 drones sent towards Israel by the Houthis early on Saturday.
So far the French, British and US navy have shot down the Houthi-controlled drones and missiles. The Houthis have said they will target all ships heading to Israeli ports, regardless of nationality.
The US-led Combined Task Force 153 has already operated in the Red Sea, countering Somali piracy as well as also other threats.
On a visit to Israel, the French foreign minister, Catherine Colonna, said the Houthi attacks “cannot be left unanswered”.
There had been concern that Saudi Arabia, which is seeking a peace deal with the Houthis to end the eight-year civil war in Yemen, might stay out of the protection force.
The Iranian defence minister, Mohammad-Reza Ashtiani, said any multinational taskforce would face extraordinary problems trying to protect shipping in the Red Sea. He said: “If the US makes such an irrational move, they will be faced with extraordinary problems. Nobody can make a move in a region where we have predominance.”
The Yemeni military spokesperson said: “If the US succeeds in establishing an international alliance, it will be the dirtiest alliance in history. The world has not forgotten the shame of remaining silent about previous genocidal crimes.”
The leader of the Houthi movement, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, has also warned that he will retaliate if red lines are crossed, one of which is direct intervention by the US in Gaza.