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Analysts: Yemen’s Houthi Targeting of Red Sea Shipping May Have Larger Aims

New Houthi recruits parade to show support to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, in Sanaa, Yemen, on Feb. 1, 2024.
New Houthi recruits parade to show support to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, in Sanaa, Yemen, on Feb. 1, 2024.

Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels, who have been targeting ships in the Red Sea and disrupting one of the world’s most important shipping lanes, may have other motives for their aggression beyond supporting Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, some analysts say.

The Houthis have been harassing ships in the neighboring Red Sea — especially U.S. and British vessels, but also any that they believe are headed to Israel — since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war in October.

The Houthis have additional goals, analysts say, including to maintain and expand their power in Yemen.

Betul Dogan-Akkas, a researcher of the Arabian Gulf at Durham University, writing in Sada, an online journal of the Carnegie Center for International Peace, said the Houthi attacks may be a strategy to not only “reposition themselves as a key regional supporter of Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation” but also to “cement their political authority in Yemen, especially amidst recent negotiations with Saudi Arabia to formally end the war,” after several years of hostilities between the nations.

Yemeni researcher Mohammad Ali Thamer goes even further, saying the Houthis may be trying to “divert attention from their responsibilities toward the Yemeni people.”

“Rather than working to achieve a lasting peace in Yemen, ensuring the payment of public employee salaries and establishing a national government, they seem to prioritize the symbolic sympathy of the Arab and Islamic world,” Thamer said.

In remarks to Saudi Arabia’s Arab News, U.S. Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking said the Houthi rebels’ attacks harm, not help, Palestinians.

“This action by the Houthis is doing nothing to help the Palestinians, nothing to alleviate the suffering of Gazans at all,” he said. “In fact, on the contrary, it’s complicating the movement of vital supplies into Gaza.”

The Houthis have shown no sign of backing down, despite U.S. and British airstrikes on Yemen’s military installations in response.

Mideast analyst Bruce Riedel, an emeritus nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, told a recent webinar at the Washington-based Quincy Institute of the dangers of the conflict expanding.

“I think the Saudis are very nervous about what they see going on here,” Riedel said. “They are well aware that the Houthis could at any moment start resuming military action against targets in Saudi Arabia.

“The Saudis spent nine years bombing Yemen,” he said. “They understand well that bombing Yemen is not going to deter the Houthis, or significantly weaken their capabilities.”