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TematicheMedio Oriente e Nord AfricaThe Impact of Terrorism on the Red Sea Region

The Impact of Terrorism on the Red Sea Region


The impact of the terrorist attacks on the Red Sea region is profound and multifaceted, affecting various aspects of maritime trade, global security, and international relations. Security threats in the Red Sea region have significant economic repercussions, leading to increased insurance premiums and security costs for international trade. The cost of terrorism in the Red Sea region is estimated to be between $7 and $12 billion annually, according to a study by the Colorado-based think tank One Earth Future. This cost encompasses various factors such as ransom payments, security equipment, insurance premiums, re-routing of ships, naval forces, prosecutions, and costs to regional economies. The economic impact of terrorism extends beyond financial losses, affecting global security, international trade routes, and the overall stability of maritime commerce.

The attacks by the Houthis pose a serious threat to global security, not only endangering the lives and livelihoods of sailors and crews but also potentially funding terrorism and other criminal activities. The need for an organized international response to combat terrorism is emphasized to ensure the safety and prosperity of maritime trade routes. The resurgence of maritime attacks in modern times is driven by various factors such as poverty, political instability, territorial disputes, and lack of economic opportunities in legal forms of work. Weak states with limited resources struggle to combat terrorism effectively, leading to a cycle where crime and violence become economically viable options for many individuals. The historical legacy of colonialism in the Red Sea region has left lasting scars, shaping the culture of politics and international relations. European colonialism, the British in particular, disrupted traditional diplomatic, religious, and cultural connections among regional governments, contributing to civil division and conflict in the area.

Violence in the Red Sea region has far-reaching consequences on maritime trade, global security, economic stability, and historical legacies. Addressing the root causes of crime, enhancing international cooperation, increasing security measures, and understanding the historical context are crucial steps towards mitigating the impact of violence in this strategic maritime area. The Houthis. Around 12% of total seaborne-traded oil and 8% of LNG trade passed through the Bab el-Mandeb, the SUMED pipeline, and the Suez Canal in the first half of 2023. The Bab el-Mandeb acts as a critical chokepoint for global trade, with approximately 9% of total seaborne-traded petroleum flowing through this strait. Additionally, about 40% of international trade passes through the Bab al-Mandab area, leading to the Red Sea, Israel’s southern port facilities, and the Suez Canal. The Bab el-Mandeb Strait holds significant importance in global trade and geopolitical landscapes. This strait, also known in Arabic as the ‘Gate of Grief’, is a crucial chokepoint for maritime trade, connecting the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea via the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. It serves as a strategic link for petroleum and natural gas flows between the Persian Gulf, Europe, the United States, and Asia.

The Bab el-Mandeb’s closure could disrupt tanker traffic, forcing vessels to divert around Africa, increasing transit time and shipping costs. Moreover, this strait has historical significance dating back to ancient times when it was a perilous sea crossing at the edge of the Mediterranean world. The modern importance of Bab el-Mandeb lies in its role as a critical route for global seaborne commodity shipments, particularly crude oil and fuel from the Gulf destined for various regions via the Suez Canal or the SUMED pipeline. The Bab el-Mandeb’s narrow width necessitates vessels to navigate through the territorial waters of adjacent states, impacting global energy security. Its closure or disruption due to conflicts like Houthis attacks can have far-reaching consequences on global trade routes, leading to rerouting decisions by major shippers and increased transport costs. In essence, the Bab el-Mandeb Strait’s significance in modern times stems from its role in facilitating international maritime trade flows between major regions of the world, making it a critical gateway for global commerce. The countries located along the Bab el-Mandeb Strait are Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula side and Djibouti and Eritrea on the Horn of Africa side. These nations play a crucial role in the geopolitics and maritime activities surrounding this strategic waterway. The Iranian regime’s links to the Houthis predate the Yemeni civil war that erupted in 2014. The sectarian and ideological ties between Iran and the Houthis overlap extensively, with Iran providing support to the group. Iran has been accused of providing weapons, training, and intelligence to the Houthis, enabling them to conduct sophisticated attacks using drones and missiles. This support has strengthened the military capabilities of the Houthis. It is, wrongly, believed that both Iran and the Houthis share an anti-imperialist discourse, positioning themselves against perceived Western powers like the United States and Israel. This alignment has led to the not entirely true idea of a convergence in foreign policy objectives which, as Elizabeth Kendall explains, does not exactly correspond to reality. Despite growing integration with Iran, the relationship between Iran and the Houthis is not that of a classic patron-client.

The Houthis maintain their own agenda and agency, pursuing local goals such as greater autonomy in the Northern regions of Yemen. The alliance between Iran and the Houthis has raised concerns among neighbouring countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Accusations of Iranian arms smuggling to the Houthis have fueled tensions in the region. The Houthis have developed their media outlets with assistance from Iran, using platforms like Al-Masirah to broadcast their messages. This collaboration extends to information sharing and propaganda efforts. In this regard, it is important to understand that the relationship between Iran and the Houthis is multifaceted, involving military support, shared ideological stances, and implications for regional security dynamics in the Middle East. The current relationship between Iran and the Houthis is characterized by significant military support and ideological alignment: Iran provides the Houthis with security assistance, including weapons transfers, training, and intelligence support. This aid has enhanced the Houthis’ military capabilities, enabling them to conduct sophisticated attacks using drones and missiles. The Houthis are ‘considered’ an important part of Iran’s ‘axis of resistance,’ which aims to push the United States out of the region, challenge Israel, and intimidate regional partners of these countries.

The relationship between Iran and the Houthis is strategic, with the Houthis assisting Iran by menacing Saudi Arabia’s border, protecting Iranian ships in the Red Sea, and field-testing Iranian-made weapons. This partnership provides Iran with leverage in the region and helps advance its geopolitical interests. While the extent of Iran’s operational influence over Houthi actions is not fully known, there is evidence of material support and training provided by Iran and Hezbollah to the Houthis. This support has enabled the Houthis to carry out attacks against regional rivals like Saudi Arabia and the UAE. As explained above, despite their close relationship, the Houthis maintain a level of autonomy from Iran. They have their own political agenda, economic autonomy, and distinct power structure. The Houthis pursue local goals such as greater autonomy in Northern Yemen while collaborating strategically with Iran. The ideology of the Houthis is a mix of religious, Yemeni nationalist, and populist elements. The Houthi movement is rooted in Zaidism, a branch of Shia Islam that recognizes only the first five successors of Prophet Mohammed. Zaidism is practised mainly in northern Yemen, where the Houthis have incorporated elements of Sunni Islam as well. Zaidis make up around a third of Yemen’s population. The Houthis are characterized as an anti-Saudi, nationalistic movement aiming to improve Shia representation in Yemen. They have a populist agenda and seek to challenge the existing power structures in the country. While the Houthis do not practice the Twelver Shiism prevalent in Iran, they share an ideological affinity and geopolitical interests with the Islamic Republic.

The ideology of the Houthis has significantly influenced their actions in Yemen in various ways. The Houthis portray themselves as fighting for economic development, an end to the political marginalization of Zaidi Shias, and regional political-religious issues. They have attracted followers by positioning themselves as champions against corruption, chaos, and extremism. This nationalistic and populist narrative has helped rally support for their cause. The Houthis’ Zaydi Shia background, combined with elements of religious revivalism, plays a significant role in shaping their ideology. Their belief in Hashemite dominance and right to rule has fueled conflicts within Yemen and influenced their desire for war. The Houthis have a complex relationship with Yemen’s Sunnis. While they have discriminated against Sunnis in areas under their control, they have also allied with and recruited Sunni supporters. The movement aims to govern all of Yemen and supports external movements against the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. Despite their discriminatory actions, the Houthis have managed to attract support from various segments of Yemeni society, including Sunnis. The Houthis retain power through repression, leading to a legitimacy deficit that they need to address. The majority of the population in Yemen is burdened by economic crises and struggles for survival, impacting perceptions of the Houthis’ actions. In summary, the Houthi movement’s stance on political marginalization in Yemen is multifaceted, involving alliances with diverse groups, discriminatory actions against certain sects, and efforts to address economic challenges while maintaining power through repression. Their complex relationships with different segments of Yemeni society reflect the intricate dynamics within the region’s political landscape.

Terrorism has a significant impact on the global economy, affecting various sectors and leading to substantial economic losses. The economic impact of piracy is immense, with estimates projecting the global value of counterfeiting and terrorism to be close to $2.8 trillion by 2022. The economic and social costs associated with sea violence are projected to be close to $2 trillion for the same year. These costs include direct financial losses, job market effects, and wider economic implications resulting from the displacement of legitimate economic activities. Terrorism leads to significant job losses globally, with estimates indicating net job losses between 4.2 to 5.4 million by 2022. The displacement of legitimate economic activities by counterfeiting and piracy contributes to these job losses, impacting various industries and sectors across different regions. The violence on the sea disrupts international trade routes, leading to increased insurance premiums, security costs, and re-routing of ships. This disruption not only impacts the shipping industry but also has broader implications for global trade and supply chains. In summary, violence’s impact on the global economy is substantial, encompassing financial losses, job market effects, trade disruptions, and wider economic costs. Addressing maritime terrorism requires a comprehensive approach involving increased security measures, international cooperation, and efforts to combat the root causes driving activities.

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