Houthi fighters ride on the back of trucks as they take part in a parade in the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah, Yemen August 24, 2017. The placards read: "Allah is the greatest. Death to America, death to Israel, a curse on the Jews, victory to Islam.".
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Saudi Arabia took the unprecedented step of halting oil exports via the Red Sea after a Houthi rebel-fired missile at two oil tankers traversing the straits that connect the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean.
“Saudi Arabia is temporarily halting all oil shipments through Bab al-Mandeb strait immediately until the situation becomes clearer and maritime transit through Bab al-Mandeb is safe,” Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said.
The kingdom took the unprecedented step because of further Iranian threats that indicate the attack was part of a larger threat to shipping. Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Qassem Soleimani warned the US Thursday that the Red Sea was “no longer secure.” He threatened “martyrdom” in response to President Donald Trump’s earlier Twitter threats this week.
It’s not the first time Bab al-Mandeb has been threatened by the Iran-allied Houthis
. They have fired on a Saudi warship before and threatened in January to close the straits by threatening shipping. Although only around four percent of the global oil trade goes through the Red Sea, it is an essential economic choke-point for Europe. Seventeen million barrels a day used to transit the straits, now around 4 million do. The two Saudi ships on Wednesday were carrying around 2 million barrels, according to reports.
At the same time the kingdom suspended shipping, there is increasingly talk in Saudi Arabia of the necessity to move forward with the Riyadh-led campaign against the Houthis. Part of this campaign has been along the coast at Hodeidah. Pushing the Houthis out of the port would help end the missile threat to shipping. In the last year the Houthis have increasingly targeted Saudi Arabia with ballistic missiles that travel hundreds of miles. Like the anti-shipping threat, the ballistic missile threat is seen as part of Iran’s hand behind the Houthis.
The question now is whether the decision by Saudi Arabia with pressure the US or European states to act. Kuwait, another Gulf state, has considered following suit with Saudi and ending shipments via the straits. If other allies do the same pressure will increased on the West to do something. The action could lead to greater escalation between Tehran and Washington or it could lead to quiet diplomacy that allows both Riyadh and Tehran to climb down and save face.
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