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How Houthi Attacks Have Upended Global Shipping

Posted on January 23, 2024

It is an extraordinary detour: Hundreds of ships are avoiding the Suez Canal and sailing an extra 4,000 miles around Africa, burning fuel, inflating costs and adding 10 days of travel or more in each direction.

They are avoiding one of the world’s most important shipping routes, the Red Sea, where for months the Iranian-backed Houthi militia has attacked ships with drones and missiles from positions in Yemen.

The Houthis have said they are seeking to disrupt shipping links with Israel to force Israel to end its military campaign in Gaza. But ships connected to more than a dozen countries have been targeted, and a Houthi spokesman said this week that they consider “all American and British ships” to be enemy targets.

The turmoil has been sweeping. About 150 ships passed through the Suez Canal, which lies at the northwest end of the Red Sea, during the first two weeks of this January. That was down from over 400 at the same time last year, according to Marine Traffic, a maritime data platform. Those detours, and the Houthi attacks, have persisted despite airstrikes by the United States and its allies against the Houthis.

Note: Attacks involving commercial vessels are attacks where at least one commercial ship is struck or targeted usually with drones or missiles. Data as of Jan. 20. Source: United States Central Command

Shipping companies have tripled the prices they charge to take a container from Asia to Europe, partly to cover the extra cost of sailing around Africa. Shipowners that still use the Red Sea, mainly tanker owners, face rising insurance premiums.

Container rates have not yet risen as much as they did during the coronavirus pandemic. But retailers like Ikea have warned that avoiding the Suez Canal could delay the arrival of merchandise at stores. Some car factories in Europe have had to briefly suspend operations while they wait for parts from Asia.

This could worsen inflation. JPMorgan Chase estimated on Thursday that worldwide consumer prices for goods would climb an extra 0.7 percent in the first half of this year if shipping disruptions continue.

Here’s what the diversion from the Red Sea looked like for a single ship, the Maersk Hong Kong. The Singapore-flagged container ship set out from Singapore to Slovenia on Nov. 15. It reached Port Said in Egypt merely 12 days later, having passed through the Red Sea and Suez Canal.

On the way back to Singapore, it arrived at Port Said again on Dec. 17. But with the Houthis then ramping up attacks, it then made a U-turn and traveled around Africa instead, only arriving back to Singapore this Friday, after a full month of sailing.

Note: Data is from November 1, 2023 through January 19, 2024. Source: Spire Global

The Red Sea and Suez Canal have become increasingly important in the past two years not just for ships that take goods between Asia and Europe, but also for oil and liquified natural gas cargos.

European countries tried to stop buying fuel from Russia after its invasion of Ukraine in 2022. So Russia sharply increased the oil it ships through the Suez Canal, much of it to India, while Europe stepped up natural gas purchases from the Middle East, also through the Suez Canal. About 12 percent of the oil carried worldwide by tankers passes through the Red Sea, and almost as much of the world’s liquefied natural gas, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Source: World Bank Note: Ship traffic density maps are based on vessel positions reported between January 2015 and February 2021 processed by the International Monetary Fund’s World Seaborne Trade monitoring system.

The Houthis have said that they are seeking to disrupt shipping links with Israel as an attempt to force Israel to end its campaign in Gaza. But ships connected to more than a dozen countries have been targeted, many of them not traveling to or from Israeli ports.

While no deaths or injuries have been confirmed from these attacks, some vessels have been damaged. A car carrier, the Galaxy Leader, was hijacked in November and taken to Yemen. Its 25-member crew of mostly Filipinos has been detained there.

The U.S. Navy has shot down many drones and missiles before they could reach their targets, preventing serious damage of commercial vessels. But it is costly for America and its allies to intercept cheap drones and inexpensive missiles with advanced fighter jets and other military hardware.

The stance of China, a maritime powerhouse, remains a major question in the Red Sea. Beijing has avoided criticizing the Houthis and has not participated in military actions against them. The Houthi attacks have delayed China’s annual surge in exports before its factories are idled next month for the Lunar New Year.


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