Houthis Threaten Suez Shipping

Iran's Yemeni proxies increase the strategic threat of Russian and Chinese military bases in the Suez region

Aerial view of the Suez Canal

Aerial view of the Suez Canal by Baycrest via Wikimedia Commons

The Houthis, an Iranian proxy group, are seeking to destroy transport ships owned by other nations. Israel is a special target because of the war with Hamas. Shipping companies, including the Danish company Maersk and Hapag Lloyd of Germany, have bypassed the Suez Canal, traveling around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope. Attacks by the Houthis around the Bab al-Mandeb Strait off the coast of Yemen have disrupted international trade, costing billions of dollars.

Prior to these recent developments, Russia, China, and the United States, had built military facilities near or around the canal. Given the Russia-Iran-China axis, the Houthis in Yemen have now actualized the possibility of a great power threat in the region.

In the year, 2021 alone, 18,829 ships with a total net tonnage of 1.17 billion passed through the Suez Canal. Today, approximately 12% of global trade and 30% of global shipping container traffic passes through the Suez Canal systems, which entails ships having to navigate the Red Sea through the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, now controlled by the Houthis and indirectly by Iran.

The Suez Canal is a critical route for energy, commodities, and consumer goods between Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. 7% to 10% of the world’s oil and 8% of liquified natural gas traverse the passageway. Ores, coal, and other elements of global commodities are also transported through the canal system. Military bases in proximity to the Suez Canal and the Red Sea provide a strategic advantage to disrupting this trade route or moving warships between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean.

If the Houthi blockade is not lifted, Egypt also stands to lose up to $9 billion annually from Suez Canal operations. Israel stands to suffer great disruptions as 30% of the nation’s imports arrive through the southern port city of Eilat from the Red Sea. Jordan’s only seaport, Aqaba, is also situated next to Eilat.

In light of Houthi drone and missile operations, the axis of Iran, Russia, and China has new meaning in relationship to the Suez Canal as these three countries have allied together against Western democracies and the U.S. presence in the Middle East. The axis countries’ presence, with military bases and seaports in the Mediterranean and at key passageways in the Suez system, raises questions about their future intent to control this international maritime corridor.

Place the Suez Canal with its systemic entrance and exit waterways at the center of any Middle East map and you will discover some very surprising facts about this strategic asset and the countries which maintain a presence in the region.

First, Russia, during the Syrian civil war, managed to carve out an air base at Khmeimim, south of the city of Latakia in Syria. Russia also leased a naval facility in Tartus for its military vessels along the Syrian coastline in the Mediterranean. Always in search of warm water ports, which do not exist year-round on the coastline of western Russia, Putin not only holds an entrée to the Mediterranean Sea, but also maintains vital bases from which he can project military power. This strategically places the Russians closer to the Suez Canal, increasing the threat to world trade.

Recently, the Russians used the Suez Canal in the transference of oil to other international ships, making the origins and destinations of Russian oil difficult to identify. One wonders how Russian war planners view the canal system and whether Russia’s closer proximity to those passageways factor into any of their strategic thinking? Given Putin’s unexpected war with Ukraine, along with his links to Iran and China, observers cannot discount Russia’s future moves in the Middle East.

Second, the Chinese have established a maritime port in Djibouti which is located by the Bab al-Mandeb Strait. That strait lies at the mouth of the Red Sea, the southern entrance to the Suez Canal. The Chinese presence in Djibouti represents that nation’s investment in maintaining the bidirectional flow of raw materials and goods for China. China also signed a twenty-five year $400 billion Belt & Road Initiative with Iran to build infrastructure in exchange for discounted Iranian oil. Just what, if anything, the Chinese will choose to do about the interruption of the Suez Canal traffic remains to be seen.

Third, the United States has the resources to protect and defend the Suez Canal, although international politics and the threat of wrangling with nuclear powers like Russia or China, as well as Iran, make such actions extremely dangerous and off putting. Nevertheless, U.S. war ships have shot down several Houthi drones and missiles launched at Israel. The U.S. has established a multinational coalition to keep international shipping flowing freely.

The number and size of American bases in the Middle East all speak to the Pax Americana which has existed in the region for decades. The United States maintains the freedom of the world’s trade routes, whether it involves the utilization of the Mediterranean Sea, the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, or the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. Passageways and chokepoints which control the global movement of oil from Iraq, Iran, the Gulf States, and Saudi Arabia to western nations are essential.

The U.S. also has a naval installation in Djibouti. Is this to counter the Chinese position there? Given the aggressiveness of the Houthis, it is no wonder why this base is necessary. It is in the interest of both countries to keep the Suez Canal open and operating.

The U.S. base in Djibouti is, of course, not the only presence it maintains in the Middle East. Among some smaller sites in Syria and Iraq, the United States has installations in Oman, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar. The U.S. Sixth Fleet uses the Israeli port of Haifa to resupply, facilitating its retention of a large naval presence in the Mediterranean. The U.S. Fifth Fleet patrols the Persian Gulf, including the Strait of Hormuz. Perhaps, given the Russian presence in Syria, the Chinese in Djibouti, and Iran’s proxy link to the Houthis and Hamas, it is an objective of these countries to project naval power more quickly and efficiently in the region.

This potential threat becomes all the more worrisome with the Houthis increased militancy in the Red Sea, having already caused insurance rates as well as the time and cost of transporting goods to rise. Recall the impact that the huge Japanese freighter the Ever Given had when it ran aground and obstructed the Suez Canal in 2021, interrupting nearly all the world’s shipping trade. While the public usually pays no attention to the centrality of the Suez Canal with its entrances and exit waterways, shipping companies and war planners from around the globe do so consistently. The countries which ensure its operational viability demonstrate a vital interest in international security and trade. Control of the Suez Canal system certainly could deny enemies access and damage their foes’ abilities to trade or project power in the region and beyond.

Clustered as Russia, China, Iran (via Yemen), and the United States are around the Suez Canal, each has a strategic impact upon this waterway and the trade it facilitates.

Rabbi Joel Schwartzman served for 23 years as a chaplain in the U.S. Air Force, retiring with the rank of colonel. He is a graduate of both Air Command and Staff, and the Air Force War College. He has studied the Middle East for over thirty-five years.

Topic tags:
Iran Israel-Hamas War Yemen Houthis Russia China Suez Canal