Highlighting the severe threat of piracy to vessels transiting in the vicinity of Houthi rebel territory, January 2018 has seen two recorded incidents off the rebel-occupied Port of Al-Hudaydah. On 6 January, a spokesperson for the Saudi-led coalition engaged in Yemen’s civil conflict announced that coalition forces had destroyed a waterborne improvised explosive device (WBIED) as it headed towards a Saudi-flagged oil tanker. The incident was preceded on the same day by a possible piracy event approximately 55 nautical miles (NM) west of Al-Hudaydah where three merchant vessels reported an approach by three skiffs, each manned by up to six armed persons. The skiffs withdrew after closing to within 200 metres of the vessels.
The attacks off Al-Hudayah are a continuation of a discernible trend seen in 2017 that saw multiple skiffs with armed persons on board approaching merchant vessels in transit to examine for potential vulnerabilities. While a higher frequency of piracy incidents using a similar modus operandi have taken place within the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, Houthi rebels are not deemed to exert the same degree of influence in coastal areas far to the south and perpetrators are likely to also include elements loyal to the Hadi-led government supported by the coalition.
Houthi threats to shipping amid continued land campaign
The potential for an escalation of attacks targeting merchant vessels off Houthi territory is high as coalition forces attempt to retake the key rebel-held port city of Al-Hudaydah. On 9 January, the Houthi-aligned SABA news agency reported that Houthi leadership had threatened to block the Red Sea shipping lane if the coalition did not cease an advance towards the port city. Targeted airstrikes and clashes in the Al-Hudaydah governorate persist, however, and coalition forces were reported to have bombed an airport in the western area of the governorate as recently as 23 January. Houthi elements have previously demonstrated the ability to launch complex attacks using several skiffs as well as WBIEDs and are highly likely to perpetrate further similar assaults on transiting vessels in the short term as coalition operations escalate.
Strategic importance of western ports
The Houthi-held ports of Al-Hudaydah and Saleef are of great strategic value to rebels because they provide an entry point for food, fuel and medicines into areas highly dependent on the commercial import of these items. According to the United Nations Verification and Inspection Mechanism, approximately 70% of people that require humanitarian assistance within Yemen live in the vicinity of Al-Hudaydah and Saleef, underlining that their continued operation is vital to the approximately 8.3 million citizens relying on external food aid.
Although the coalition previously closed the ports in November 2017 after rebels launched a ballistic missile into Saudi Arabia, on 21 December, and following international condemnation of port closures, they allowed the opening of the port to food aid and commercial fuel for 30 days until 19 January. This was again extended for a further 30 days on 23 January meaning efforts by the coalition to wear down rebels through restricting aid at crucial ports have been significantly restricted.