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January 11, 2024 Special Dispatch No. 11077

Responses In Arab Press To Houthi Threat In Red Sea: Criticism Of U.S. Policy Alongside Fear Of Houthi, Iranian Response

January 11, 2024
Yemen | Special Dispatch No. 11077

In December 2023, the Houthis Ansar Allah movement, Iran's proxy in Yemen, escalated its attacks on vessels in the Red Sea and Bab-el-Mandeb. The Houthis have been attacking commercial vessels that they claim are connected to Israel or are bound for that country, with the stated aim of aiding the Gazans in the war with Israel, which broke out following Hamas' deadly attack on October 7, 2023.[1] The attacks have caused many shipping companies to opt for alternative routes, which lengthens the voyage and increases the cost of shipping.     

On December 18, 2023 U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said that the Houthi threat "is an  international challenge that demands collective action," and announced the establishment of Operation Prosperity Guardian, a multinational security initiative under the command of the U.S. Navy involving some 20 countries, including Britain, Canada, Norway and Bahrain.[2]        

This maritime task force experienced difficulties from the start. Only days after its establishment, France, Spain and Italy announced their withdrawal from it. Furthermore, several of America's Arab allies are conspicuous in their absence from this force, even though they regard the Houthis as a threat, specifically Saudi Arabia, which until recently waged war on the Houthis by means of its Coalition to Restore Legitimacy in Yemen; the UAE, which supports a Yemeni force in the south of the country that opposes the Houthis; and Egypt and Jordan, whose economies are sorely hit by the crisis in the Red Sea. With the exception of Egypt, these Arab countries have refrained from officially responding to the establishment of the task force, apparently fearing Houthi and Iranian retaliation and preferring to negotiate with the Houthis, and at the same time hoping that the American pressure will serve them in these efforts and eventually facilitate a resolution to the crisis.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry presented the position of Egypt, which seeks a balance between its security needs and its fear of entering a campaign against the Houthis and Iran. In a December 21, 2023 press conference in Cairo with his British counterpart David Cameron, Shoukry said: "We share [the commitment to] the principles of freedom of shipping and the need to defend it. Responsibility for security [in the Red Sea] rests with the countries along its shores.  We continue to cooperate with many of our partners in order to provide the conditions that will allow freedom of shipping and the operation of the Suez Canal… Britain is party to the establishment of the new maritime [task] force, while Egypt maintains relations and cooperation with its partners in other frameworks. We continue to coordinate and seek the best ways to allow freedom of shipping and prevent a disruption of the supply chain."[3] Mohab Mamish, the Egyptian President's advisor on seaports and the Suez Canal, also conveyed that Egypt preferred to opt out of the new maritime task force, and called to form an Egyptian force to protect ships en route from Bab-el-Mandeb to the Suez Canal.[4]  In contrast, others in Egypt called to carry out "intensive attacks on the sources of the fire inside Yemen."[5]

The Saudi press published many articles addressing the severe threat posed by the Houthis. Some of them regarded the Houthis as proxies of Iran and argued that their actions were aimed at improving Iran's position ahead of future negotiations with the U.S. on the nuclear issue. These articles welcomed the formation of the multinational task force and expressed support for military action against the Houthis. Other articles expressed a concern that a military move would cause further escalation in the region that would directly harm its countries. These articles justified the decision of Arab countries to opt out of the multinational task force, claiming, for instance, that the Houthi threat is a global one that requires an international response. Some of them expressed disappointment with the U.S. administration and a lack of confidence in it, in light of America's past policy towards the Houthis and its removal of the Houthi Ansar Allah movement from the list of terror organizations. It is this policy, the articles claimed, that empowered the Houthis and emboldened them to threaten international shipping. Some writers assessed that Arab countries prefer not to join the maritime task force because they fear the reaction of their peoples, which support the Houthi action against Israel.   

An article in a UAE daily argued that the lenient American policy towards the Houthis did not stem from the ideology of the U.S. administration but was a response to the Saudi strategy towards them. According to this article, the solution is to establish a state in South Yemen with military capabilities that can deter the Houthis.  


Houthi fighters (Image: Elnashra.com, May 15, 2022)

This report reviews responses in the Egyptian, Saudi and Emirati press to the Houthi attacks on Red Sea shipping and to the establishment of the U.S.-led maritime task force.

The Houthis Threaten Not Only Israel But Also International Shipping; Iran Is The Root Of The Problem

In the Arab countries opposed to the resistance axis, press articles have been unanimous in claiming that the Houthi threat in the Red Sea harms not only Israel but also global shipping. The articles also argued that Iran is using the Gaza war and the Houthis not to help the Palestinians but to improve its position in its dealings with the U.S.

Senior Saudi journalist Abd al-Rahman Al-Rashed, the former editor of the London-based daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat and director of Al-Arabiya TV, wrote that it is necessary to "jointly confront the source of the threat to the international shipping route" (i.e., Iran), which uses the Houthis as a proxy "not only in order to take over Yemen and threaten Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries but also in order to reach Bab-el-Mandeb and enhance its power and influence in the region. Today,” he added, “Iran [threatens] three maritime [zones]: the [Persian] Gulf, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean." Al-Rashed noted that Iran, which is behind the current escalation, regards this as a way to strengthen its position in the nuclear negotiations, and also seeks to take advantage of the fact that 2024 is an election year in the U.S., and that presidents “generally avoid intervening in military conflicts” in an election year.[6]

Al-Sharq Al-Awsat columnist Suleiman Goda wrote: “The Houthi recklessness harms not only Israel but all of world trade… The claim that the Houthis want to help the Palestinian cause and the Palestinians in Gaza with their maritime activities makes no sense. If the Iranian government, which operates the Houthis in the southern [Red] Sea by remote control, and arms them, really wanted to help the [Palestinian] cause and the people of Gaza, it could do so [by acting] on the northern front [i.e., on Israel’s northern border], where it can display its military prowess as it pleases… But Tehran, for reasons that are clear to everyone in the region and beyond… wants [to gain] the spoils… without paying the price… Its only goal is to strengthen its hand and gain another card [it can use] one day, when it sits down to negotiate with the Americans. So far, there is no proof that these [Houthi] attacks have served the Gazan cause in any way.”[7] 

Fadel Al-Munasifa, a columnist for the London-based daily Al-Arab, wrote:  “When Israel escalated its military action in the Gaza Strip, Iran tried to play a new card, having given up the idea of expanding the South Lebanon front. It shifted the escalation to the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait in an effort to threaten America’s economic interests and thereby prompt it to rethink its considerations and change its position on the [Gaza] war and on the post-war stage… Iran has linked the fate of Red Sea shipping to the fate of Hamas in Gaza. At the same time it regards this war as an opportunity to exert pressure by means of its proxy in Yemen in order to receive more of its frozen funds."[8] 

Writers Defend Arab Countries' Decision To Refrain From Joining The Multinational Maritime Task Force

Despite acknowledging the Houthi and Iranian threat, many articles justified the decision of Saudi Arabia and Egypt to opt out of the multinational task force formed by the U.S. to protect the Red Sea and Bab-el-Mandeb shipping routes. Among the arguments presented were the following:

The U.S. Is responsible For Strengthening The Houthis, So It Is Now Responsible For Dealing With Them

Numerous articles, especially in the Saudi press, stated that the threat currently posed by the Houthis stems from the policy of the U.S., which chose to tolerate this threat rather than confront it, as Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries demanded, and even impeded these countries' efforts to remove the Houthi threat. These articles therefore argued that the U.S. should now be the one to deal with this problem.    

Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed wrote: “The Americans now realize the terrible mistake they made when they thwarted the operations of the Saudi military coalition against the Houthis. The U.S. denied Saudi Arabia important munitions, stopped sharing military intelligence with it and threatened it with legal measures, and Biden removed the Houthis from the list of terror organizations. [And now] the [Houthi] militia is threatening international shipping from Yemen. “[9]

Al-Sharq Al-Awsat columnist Mishari Al-Dhaidi wrote that, “from its very first week… [the Biden administration] rushed to remove the Houthi militia from the terror list, and thought that talking with them and achieving a ceasefire would lead to a comprehensive peace agreement in Yemen” – a “scornful” move that infuriated the Saudis and the other Arab countries. Al-Dhaidi wondered why the Americans were so surprised by the current Houthi policy, and stated that it is the American policy, which is marked by improvisation and superficiality, that has brought about the present situation. Noting that the Arabs, headed by Saudi Arabia, have long been calling “to thwart the Iranian plan in Yemen, [which is carried out] by means of its proxy, namely the Houthis,”  he asked: “Did the Yemenis, the Saudis and the rest of the Arabs not warn that confronting the [Houthi] threat to international maritime trade and to the international shipping routes is not just a Saudi, Yemeni or Arab interest, but an issue that concerns all the world countries? International trade cannot give up the shipping routes [that pass close to] Yemen’s territorial waters from every direction!” Al-Dhaidi also wondered whether the latest shift in America’s position on the Houthis stems from the fact that they are now threatening Israel.[10]

Saudi columnist Amal Abd Al-Aziz Al-Hazani wrote: “…Since the fall of the legitimate Yemeni regime in late 2014, the Houthis have carried out multiple attacks on vessels sailing close to the boundary of Yemen’s territorial waters... but the international community did nothing of significance [to stop this]… In 2018 Saudi Arabia formed the so-called Red Sea entity, comprising the countries along the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, namely Egypt, Jordan, Sudan, Djibouti, Somalia and Yemen [i.e., the Yemeni regime supported by Saudi Arabia], in order to defend trade and freedom of shipping in the region. But the international community did not join it, as it should have done… The Houthi attacks on ships are not a new phenomenon caused by the Gaza war. They are part of Iran’s strategy in the region…”[11]  

Mustafa Al-Qara Daghi, an Iraqi columnist on the Saudi website Elaph, wrote: “The Houthis would have never acted with such boldness and recklessness had it not been for the policy of seeking a ceasefire that the U.S. and the West adopted over the years towards those who are behind [the Houthis] in Qom [i.e., the Iranians] –  especially during the presidency of Barack Obama, who preferred diplomatic solutions over security ones and thereby gave [the Iranians] time to regroup, prepare and develop their munitions… Had [the Houthis] been handled firmly from the start, as Saudi Arabia did when it announced the formation of the Decisive Storm coalition, and had the U.S. supported this coalition and joined it, we would have never reached the point where a bunch of mercenaries is threatening global trade.”[12]

Dr. Ahmad Sayed Ahmad, a columnist for the Egyptian state daily Al-Ahram, wrote: “There can be no doubt that the U.S. policy in the region, which was characterized by hesitancy and vagueness, exacerbated the regional threats, especially [the threats] to the security of maritime shipping.  These threats have to do with the struggle between the U.S. and Iran… The U.S. did not take a deterring stance against the threats to the freedom of shipping in the [maritime] routes, and even ignored the warnings of the Arab and Gulf states regarding the danger to international shipping and the global economy. Thus, in the absence of a firm and joint [decision] by the international community to confront these attacks and threats, they steadily multiplied… In addition, the American policy regarding the war in Yemen… and the absence of a firm position towards the Houthis – which were removed from the terror list by the Biden administration – encouraged [the Houthis] to continue threatening shipping in the Red Sea. The American response to their attacks was feeble and part of its policy of containment…”[13]

Emile Amin, an Egyptian columnist for Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, wrote:  “Washington cannot sit idly in the face of what is happening [in the Red Sea]. The silence of the international community, and its inability to defend the international shipping routes, is likewise inconceivable… The U.S., and especially the Biden administration, bear the heaviest responsibility in this context, because the present U.S. administration is the one that enabled [the Houthis] to behave this way, after, in one of its very first decisions, [this administration] hurried to remove them from the global terror lists. Day after day, the reality and experience show that the Americans’ efforts to appease Iran are useless and always yield the opposite results… Biden and his team thought that if they exonerated the Houthis of the accusation of terrorism they would quickly gain concessions from the Iranians, which would enable the current Democratic administration to reach a new nuclear agreement with Tehran. [But] it appears that Iran is toying with Washington, all day and every day.”[14]

The U.S.-Led Maritime Task Force Is Not The Solution; The Houthis Must Be Redesignated As A Terror Organization And Subjected To Sanctions

Criticism was directed not only at America's past policy towards the Houthis, but also at its decision to form the maritime task force. Some articles argued that forming this force is not an effective solution, for it will only deal specifically with the maritime threat, and may even exacerbate the problem by causing the Houthis to escalate their position, or by prompting other superpowers, like Russia and China, to increase their military presence in the area. These articles therefore  advocated taking diplomatic and economic measures, such as redesignating the Houthis as a terror organization and subjecting them to sanctions.

Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed wrote: “The American naval coalition may indeed manage to stop the Houthis’ piracy against the ships, but the Houthis can continue to threaten the strait with rockets fired from Yemen’s western shores…”[15]

Dr. Ahmad Sayed Ahmad claimed that the formation of the naval coalition will only complicate the situation, and questioned America’s motivations. He noted that this is not the first coalition that has been formed to end the threats to shipping in the Red Sea, and that it must therefore have a further goal, namely “to expand the U.S. and Western military presence in the Red Sea as part of the conflict between the superpowers, which are competing for military presence there.” He added:  “There are nine military bases in Djibouti, chief of them the American base and the Chinese one, and the Russians are making efforts to build [their own] base in the area. The new coalition intensifies [this] military competition and can lead to the founding of competing naval coalitions by China and Russia that will defend their vessels and extensive trade… This will threaten security and stability in the region…”

Instead of forming new naval forces, Ahmad proposed to activate the old security bodies that comprised regional countries and countries along the Red Sea, which, he said, can protect shipping in the area. He also called to adopt a firm international position vis-à-vis the Houthi threats, under UN sponsorship, without specifying what this position should be.[16]

Mustafa Al-Qara Daghi claimed: “The U.S. seems to be following the principle of ‘better late than never,’ but sometimes coming late is like not coming [at all]… The Houthis are threatening not only Yemen but the entire world. They must be handled firmly, first of all by designating them as a terror organization and drying up their sources of finance, and ultimately by eliminating them, so as to free the entire world of their evil and cast them into the trash bin of history…”[17]

Emile Amin warned that, if the Houthis are allowed “to continue their hit-or-miss strategy,” they will continue their attacks until “they ultimately score a big hit.” He stressed that the solution must be a diplomatic one, such as “redesignating them as a foreign terrorist organization, subjecting them to more U.S. and international sanctions and pressuring the relevant UN organizations to declare their actions in international waters as maritime terrorism...”[18] 

Fadel Al-Munasifa wrote that defending the freedom of shipping in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, which is the stated goal of the new naval task force, is “vital in order to regain the confidence of the large shipping companies and guarantee some kind of stability in the oil market.” However, this “will not guarantee long-term stability, given the failure of the political settlement in Yemen…”[19] 

Saudi Arabia Does Not Want To Jeopardize The Understandings With The Houthis

In light of these arguments, some of the writers stated that Saudi Arabia has no interest in joining the maritime task force, especially after so many years of deadly and costly war with the Houthis, which was waged without U.S. support, and especially since an agreement with the Houthis seems to be taking shape. They also argued that the U.S. has long been disappointing its allies by letting them do the fighting on the ground and bear the cost of this fighting while it itself suffices with directing the war from behind the scenes. 

 Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed wrote that, although Saudi Arabia could be expected to join the naval coalition since it has the longest Red Sea coastline and has an interest in securing Red Sea shipping, this country nevertheless “has no interest in opening a front against the Houthis or in violating the new understandings" with them. This, he said, "makes things very difficult for the U.S. as it comes to carry out the mission it previously thwarted."[20]

Shaher Al-Nahari, a columnist for the Saudi state daily Makkah, noted the weakness of the U.S., which “no longer enjoys the hegemony it had in the past” and therefore no longer enjoys people’s trust. He added: “Every time [America’s] control and abilities in some region are undermined, it rushes to cover up its helplessness by recruiting the powers and countries [of that region] and forming an alliance that it itself does not join or actively lead. This creates complications for its allies and weakens the alliance, as well as America’s plans and control. This is what happened in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia and Afghanistan, and in the waters of the Gulf, the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, and recently in the Ukraine war. America insists on running things from behind the scenes and letting its allies deal with disasters, while  its directives change from minute to minute [until it ultimately] withdraws and disappoints everyone who followed it.”

According to Al-Nahari, “Saudi Arabia was right to refrain from joining the [maritime] coalition… After an exhausting nine-year war, during which the U.S. surprised it by removing the Houthis from the terror list, Saudi Arabia is entitled to avoid getting involved so as to protect its regional and global plans and commitments…” 

While justifying Saudi Arabia’s decision to refrain from joining the task force, and to make concessions to the Houthis and Iran, Al-Nahari also called to address the root of the problem, namely Iran itself: “The Houthi headache will continue… and in order to end it there is need to take a serious look at its cause and [determine] who benefits from causing it… Painkillers will not alleviate this chronic headache as long as those responsible for it are neglected… We must scrutinize the source of the problem and address it seriously and thoroughly, in order to keep its cancer cells from spreading.”[21]

Saudi columnist Amal Abd Al-Aziz Al-Hazani likewise wrote that Saudi Arabia is reluctant “to sacrifice its years of attempts, negotiations, mediation and intense efforts to resolve the problems in Yemen [just] in order to become involved in the Gaza war. Saudi Arabia is not one of the NATO countries [that are part of] the mutual defense pact with the U.S., so it does not have to join the international [maritime] coalition under its leadership… As long as the Houthis remain committed [to their agreement] with the legitimate Yemeni regime…  the other elements remain committed as well.

“The security of Bab-el-Mandeb, the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea is not just the responsibility of the countries along their shores. As long as vessels from all over the world pass there, defending them remains the responsibility of the [entire] world.”[22]

Mustafa Al-Qara Daghi noted that the decision of countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt to refrain from joining the task force although the Houthi threat affects them as well is an American “failure” and “the primary weakness” of the task force. The extensive harm sustained by Saudi Arabia in the years of its war against the Houthis, he said, and the fact that the West chose to criticize it instead of supporting it in its fight against the Houthis, “forced [Saudi Arabia] to act to normalize its relations with Iran, the Houthis’ patron… Today these two countries [Saudi Arabia and Egypt] do not want to give the Houthis the chance to escalate [their attacks] against them. They also [fear that] joining the Prosperity Guardian coalition will embarrass them in front of their people, who sympathize with the Gazans, given that Israel’s ongoing war is supported by the U.S., which is the leader of the coalition.”[23]

Articles In Egyptian Press: Dealing With The Houthi Threat Should Be Left To The Countries Along The Red Sea

Some articles in the Egyptian press endorsed the position of Foreign Minister Sameh Al-Shoukry, that the solution cannot come from outside but is up to the countries of the region, and that a diplomatic solution should be preferred. Osama Saraya, a columnist for the Egyptian state daily Al-Ahram, wrote that "the organization of Red Sea countries must act and compel all the sides and all the countries to defend the shipping zones, so that the Red Sea will be safe."[24]

Conversely, two other articles in Al-Ahram stressed the threat posed by the Houthis, expressed implicit support for the formation of the U.S.-led maritime task force and argued that the measures against the Houthis should be intensified. Gamil Afifi wrote: “The Houthis’ actions and their ongoing threat [to shipping in the Red Sea] violate the 1982 Law of the Sea [Convention], which states that no country in the world… may threaten or stop shipping in any waterway or strait. If a country is engaged in an armed conflict with another it can activate a clause that allows it to search cargoes and prevent the passage of weapons… as Egypt did in the October 1973 war… But the current Houthi threats violate all the maritime conventions and laws. The Houthis are an [armed] group that does not rule the country or determine its fate… so they do not have the right to threaten shipping or implement the clause on searching [ships]… That is why the international coalition decided to defend shipping and deter [the Houthis] from carrying out such operations in the future.”[25]

Al-Ahram columnist Abd Al-Mun’im Sa’id noted that the Houthis’ conduct “threatens to [spark] a global war, which will place the international trade routes in danger and constitutes a direct attack on vital Egyptian interests. So far,” he added, “the global powers defended themselves and intercepted the drones [launched by the Houthis]. But the increasing use of drones and rockets leaves no choice but to carry out intensive attacks against the sources of the fire inside Yemen…”[26]

Columnist In UAE Daily: Allow South Yemen People To Establish An Armed State That Will Deter The Houthis

Alongside the criticism of America's lenient policy towards the Houthis, some articles also criticized Saudi Arabia's policy towards them. Yemeni journalist Hani Salem Mashour, who writes in the Emirati London-based daily Al-Arab, argued that, although Saudi Arabia understands the Houthi threat to its national security, "the political circumstances that emerged in the Arab Spring era, and the reality in Yemen, compelled the Saudi authorities to adopt a policy of containment –  the same policy it had always taken [towards Yemen]." He added: "This policy, which Saudi Arabia insisted on,… was one of the main weaknesses that caused Operation Decisive Storm to fail…[27] In April 2023, the Saudi ambassador [to Yemen] broke the stalemate by visiting Sanaa, a measure which changed the rules of the political struggle and encouraged the Houthis to come to Riyadh [to negotiate with the Saudis]. But at the same time, [the Houthis] stuck to the demand they had made [already] during their September 2014 coup, [namely] the demand to negotiate with the Saudis on an equal footing…"

Al-Mashour added that "the Americans' confused policy vis-à-vis the Houthis is not connected to the [internal] struggle between the Democratic and Republican parties [in the U.S.], but stems from the conduct of [America's] strategic ally, Saudi Arabia, which has its own policy towards the Yemeni forces.

"There is a need for a new reading of the situation, which avoids [a policy of] containment… The Houthis will only surrender if they are defeated, as happened in Aden and Al-Hudaydah. Therefore, there is need for a balanced policy. The people of South Yemen must be allowed to establish a state with deterring military power that can defend international shipping…

"There is no choice but to take this step, because the international forces will not manage to cause the Houthis to become part of the international community, even by military means. The plan of forming a broad military coalition to defend [Red Sea]  shipping will [only] cause the reemergence of [piracy, similar to] the Somali piracy in the Red Sea. Moreover, completing [the task of securing the Red Sea] will take many years… Only restoring the situation that prevailed in Yemen before 1990 [i.e., the division of the country into two states, South Yemen and North Yemen] will achieve the desired results and bring stability to the region."[28]

 

[2] Defense,gov, December 18, 2023.

[3] Alhurra.com, December 21, 2023.

[4] Arabic.rt.com, December 18, 2023.

[5] Al-Ahram (Egypt), December 26, 2023.

[6] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 23, 2023.

[7] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 21, 2023.

[8] Al-Arab (London), December 23, 2023.

[9] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 23, 2023.

[10] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 13, 2023.

[11] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 26, 2023.

[12] Elaph.com, December 24, 2023.

[13] Al-Ahram (Egypt), December 25, 2023.

[14] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 20, 2023.

[15] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 23, 2023.

[16] Al-Ahram (Egypt), December 25, 2023.

[17] Elaph.com, December 24, 2023.

[18] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 20, 2023.

[19] Al-Arab (London), December 19, 2023.

[20] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 23, 2023.

[21] Makkah (Saudi Arabia), December 25, 2023.

[22] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 26, 2023.

[23] Elaph.com, December 24, 2023.

[24] Al-Ahram (Egypt), December 23, 2023.

[25] Al-Ahram (Egypt), December 26, 2023.

[26] Al-Ahram (Egypt), December 26, 2023.

[27] Operation Decisive Storm, launched by the Coalition to Restore Legitimacy in Yemen on March 26, 2015, was aimed at repelling the Houthi rebels, who had taken over large parts of the country, and helping Yemen's deposed president, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi, to regain control of Yemen. The operation ended in April 21, 2015 without achieving these goals.

[28] Al-Arab (London), December 19, 2023.

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