Assessment: Houthi Rebels Will Not Impede Shipping

Damage to the Abqaiq's bow (SPA)

Published Apr 6, 2018 10:20 PM by The Maritime Executive

This week's missile attack on a tanker off Yemen sparked diplomatic outrage, but it is unlikely to affect merchant traffic in the Red Sea, according to multiple assessments.. 

On Tuesday, Houthi rebels attacked a Saudi-owned tanker near Hudaydah (Hodeidah), a Yemeni port near the strategic Strait of Bab al-Mandeb. EUNAVFOR identified the vessel targeted as the Saudi-owned VLCC Abqaiq and reported that her crew was unharmed. As of Friday, AIS data showed the Abqaiq under way in the Red Sea, bound for Sokhna, Egypt. 

Houthi forces said in a statement that the attack on the Saudi tanker was in retaliation for a Saudi airstrike on the port city of Hudaydah earlier this week, which killed at least twelve civilians. Saudi-led forces backing the Yemeni government are engaged in a fight to retake Hudaydah, the last major port held by the Houthi rebel alliance. 

Anti-ship missile strike

A Saudi Press Agency photo of the vessel shows a hole of roughly one foot in diameter located above the waterline on the Abqaiq's starboard bow. In an advisory released Thursday, security consultants Dryad Maritime said that the nature of the damage, the rough weather on scene and the Abqaiq's long distance from shore suggested a land-launched, anti-ship guided missile strike. Houthi rebels have successfully carried out several anti-ship missile attacks on military vessels in the Red Sea in recent years, along with several attempted strikes on U.S. Navy warships. 

As troubling as an attack on a merchant ship might be, Dryad noted that the Houthi forces are focused on Saudi coalition- and coalition-aligned targets, and they are unlikely to expend their resources on random attacks. "Dryad continue to assess that targeting by Houthi rebels is almost exclusively as a result of vessels being identified as being in support of the Saudi led coalition in Yemen or due to proximity to Saudi naval vessels," the firm wrote. "Houthi rebels are assessed as being highly unlikely to utilise limited and valuable weapon systems against targets that are not positively identifiable as being of Saudi origin or in direct support of Saudi coalition forces."

Saudi energy minister Khalid Al-Falih had a different assessment of the attackers' intentions. In a Twitter message, Al-Falih suggested that the strike on the Abqaiq was a "desperate attempt to undermine and disrupt [international] maritime trade and safety" in general, indicating a broader range of targets than Saudi ships alone. However, his conclusion was the same: "it won't impact economic activity or disrupt #oil_supply," he wrote. 

Port status unchanged

In a client update Thursday, leading marine insurer Gard said that the situation at Yemen's seaports has remained unchanged since the attack on the Abqaiq. The strike "reportedly had no impact on the flow of ships in the region or on the working status of Yemeni ports," Gard wrote.

Though unchanged, the situation is not simple. The Saudi coalition controls vessel access to Hodeidah, and aid ships are subject to inspection. The U.N. Verification and Inspection Mechanism (UNVIM) is responsible for implementing a U.N. Security Council embargo on Houthi arms shipments, and in the wake of the missile attack on the Abqaiq, UNVIM told Saudi officials that it would more than double its staff for vessel inspections, reports Reuters. UNVIM examines cargoes bound for the rebel-held ports of Hodeidah, Salif and Ras Isra in order to reduce the flow of arms to Houthi fighters. 

The U.S. intelligence community asserts that Iran provides the Houthi side with weaponry, including missile technology. The United States and Britain supply arms, training and related services to the Saudi coalition, including in-flight refueling for Saudi warplanes during military operations.