The Implications of Escalating Maritime Threats in Bab al-Mandab


Amid the war in Gaza, maritime threats in the Red Sea, in particular the Bab al-Mandab, have escalated due to Houthi attacks on commercial vessels transiting through the waterways.   Bab al-Mandab serves as a vital chokepoint linking the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and, subsequently, the Indian Ocean. Accounting for around 10% to 12% of worldwide trade movement, the waterways  are not only a key transit area but also a focal point for piracy, armed conflicts, and the power projection of major naval powers. As per the latest reports, over 7 million barrels per day (bpd) of oil flows through Bab al-Mandab, making it a critical maritime chokepoint. The war in Gaza has increased the maritime threats in the Red Sea and Bab al-Mandab. 

In November, the Houthis seized an Israeli-linked cargo ship “Galaxy Leader” off the coast of the Yemeni port city of Hodeidah, taking 25 crew members hostage, citing the vessel’s connection to Israel and declaring their intent to target ships owned or linked to Israelis until the end of Israeli attacks in Gaza. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu  called the seizure an act of terrorism and linked the seizure  to Iran while Tehran denied  this allegation.  In the last two months, several explosions, attacks and interceptions have occurred in Bab al-Mandab with a reported increase in drone activity (see Table 1). The UK Maritime Trade Organization  agency suspects Houthi involvement amid heightened tensions in the region and has issued warnings. The Houthis targeted two ships off the Yemeni coast in recent weeks, one of which was a Bahamas-flagged vessel, alleging Israeli ownership. Last month, USS Thomas Hudner of the US Navy shot down multiple drones launched from Yemen and the Pentagon issued warnings against further attacks. Recent reports also indicated that a French frigate intercepted and destroyed two drones over the Red Sea that were suspected to be approaching from the Yemeni coast. Despite Israel-linked ships deactivating their tracking systems while navigating the Red Sea via the strategic Bab al-Mandab strait due to concerns about hijacking or Houthi attacks, they continue to be targeted.

The escalating maritime tensions and repercussions of the Gaza war have a number of implications for the region and trade. Firstly, the regional security situation has deteriorated amid the Gaza war, thus increasing the risks for international trade. As a result, several countries have issued warnings and re-routed their ships which also consequentially results in extended shipping durations causing delays. The Panama Maritime Administration  advised all vessels flying the Panama flag to implement heightened security measures while transiting through Bab al-Mandab and avoid transiting through the Red Sea. Secondly, amid increasing risks,  insurance prices have spiked which has impacted overall shipping costs. Increased attacks in the region have led to surging insurance costs for vessels passing through  the Red Sea and Bab al-Mandab. Insurers now view these waterways  as more hazardous, prompting shippers to allocate additional resources to reinforce security measures and minimize associated risks which has resulted in increased war risk insurance premiums for Red Sea voyages. Thirdly, the Red Sea plays a pivotal role in facilitating the oil and LNG trade from the Middle East to worldwide markets. Any disturbances in this strategic chokepoint invariably impact the global energy trade, resulting in increased prices and uncertainties in the supply chain. Fourthly, recent attacks in the region have increasingly involved drones, posing challenges and elevating the risks of escalation. The Houthis employ drone warfare due to its cost-effectiveness and ability to inflict significant damage on their targets.

As the anger rises against Israeli actions in Gaza and US support for Israel, the Houthis are strategically working to garner support and intensify attacks, aiming to strengthen their military position. This is apparent in the statements made by Houthi leaders, with vows to target all Israel-bound ships. As the Houthis work to stay relevant and flex their military muscle to posture and signal to Israel, the United States and regional powers, maritime risks in the Red Sea and Bab al Mandab will continue to escalate posing challenges to international trade and regional security.

Table 1: Attacks and Interceptions in the Red Sea Amid the Gaza War

DateLocationNature of Attack
09/12/23110 km from Yemeni coastThe French Navy’s Languedoc Multi-Mission Frigate (FREMM) shot down two drones that were approaching the frigate.
03/12/23Red SeaA ballistic missile attack by the Houthis struck three commercial ships. The US Navy’s USS Carney detected a ballistic missile fired from Yemen at the Bahamas-flagged bulk carrier Unity Explorer and shot down the drone.
29/11/23Near Bab al-MandabThe US Navy’s USS Carney destroyer downed an Iranian-origin drone that was launched from Yemen.
23/11/23Red SeaThe US Navy’s USS Thomas Hudner destroyer shot down multiple drones suspected to be launched from Yemen.  
19/11/23Southern Red SeaThe Houthis seized a ship allegedly associated with an Israeli businessman. However, Israel identified it as a cargo vessel owned by Britain and operated by Japan.
15/11/23Near Bab al-MandabThe US Navy’s USS Thomas Hudner destroyer shot down a drone approaching it, suspected to have been launched from Yemen.  
8/11/23Yemeni coastHouthi forces shot down a US MQ-9 Reaper drone off the coast of Yemen.
19/10/23Red SeaThe US Navy’s USS Carney shot down drones suspected to be launched from Yemen. As per US CENTCOM, it is unclear if the drones were targeting the ship.  
Editorial Team