Red Sea Fissure – The Extending Conflict in the Middle East

The Middle Eastern region remained in the limelight throughout 2023. Firstly, earlier last year, the rapprochement between the historic rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran, followed by the truce between Saudi Arabia and Yemeni Houthis, increased the region’s importance in global politics. However, the recent conflict between Hamas and Israel is raising concerns about the stability of the region. According to Barry Buzan and Ole Waever’s concept of intertwined security of the regional states, the ongoing conflict in Gaza is putting at risk the stability that the region has achieved in recent times. This incident has changed the dynamics, increased the volatility of the region, and revitalised the recently dormant actors in the region, such as Hezbollah and Yemeni Houthis. Israel’s atrocities in Gaza and no sign of an immediate ceasefire have been fuelling the risks of engaging all regional states in this conflict.

For decades, the Middle East has remained the hub of proxies, which are highly influential in shaping the order of security in the region. Since the day the turbulence started in Gaza, these proxies, including Hezbollah and Yemeni Houthis, actively rallied in support of the Palestinian people. Recently, the Houthis adopted a proactive strategy to block the Red Sea ship lane from which almost 30% of global trade and Israel’s majority of imports and exports travel. At the beginning of January, they fired 21 missiles and drones at the ships, which, according to them, were from Israel or travelling to it. This has induced a retaliatory military response, “Operation Prosperity Guardian”, from the United States (US) and United Kingdom (UK), carrying airstrikes into the Houthis-controlled Yemeni territory.

The disruption in the Red Sea is causing huge damage to international commerce. It is not only forcing ships to change their routes to longer ones but also increasing the costs of the products. The oil prices surged 4%, crossing $80 per barrel in the international market. Similarly, American Secretary of State Antony Blinken claimed that the overall trade from the route was also reduced by 20%, causing a loss of almost $200 billion to international trade.

The disruption in the Red Sea is causing huge damage to international commerce. It is not only forcing ships to change their routes to longer ones but also increasing the costs of the products.

Apart from their stance on Palestine, why Houthis are doing this is a valuable question to address. There are three worthwhile reasons behind this. Firstly, Yemen’s Houthis are doing this in protest against Israel’s actions in Gaza. According to them, the disruption of the global supply chain from the Red Sea is to push the Western nations for a ceasefire and allow humanitarian aid in Gaza.

Secondly, the political ideology of Houthis relates to Iran, which inspires them to show resentment against the foreign actors in the region. There are assertions that Iran has been funding Houthis in Yemen since the day they began fighting against the Saudi-led government in Sanaa. Similarly, under the Iranian Axis of Resistance, they are also part of the regional campaign to expel the US from the region, destroy Israel and favour the formation of the Islamic Caliphate.

Lastly, Houthis might have political objectives behind their assertive actions in the Red Sea. The masses support them for their stance in the Israel-Hamas conflict. They have received a response from the people of Yemen as they came out in the streets in solidarity with Palestinians in a march called by Houthis. Similarly, those who were criticising them for their attacks on ships in the Red Sea received a backlash from the local Yemenis. Therefore, they have found an opportunity to revitalise themselves, especially when their armed relevance decreased after the Saudi-Iran Rapprochement.

The situation in the Gaza and Red Sea hints at a widening conflict in the region. The US already sent its aircraft craft carrier to the region immediately after October 7, last year. It is also contemplating, with its partners, such as the UK, deploying naval task forces to sea waters for the protection of ships. Therefore, it will increase the presence of the US and the Western forces in the region, enhancing the chances of confrontation between them and their hostile forces, such as Houthis.

Similarly, the role of the US is not limited to the Red Sea; it has to promptly respond to other threats to its forces in the region. Even before it struck the Houthis, the US administration allowed strikes in the region against the militias in response to the attacks on its bases in Iraq and Syria. As Sanam Vakil, head of the Middle East programme at Chatham House, said, the US has the “capacity and potency to deter and counter attacks simultaneously.” So, in any case, Washington will likely respond to every threat it perceives in the region, posing an impending threat to regional peace and stability.

These conflicts in the region will have a ripple effect on the neighbouring countries. The possible confrontation between the Houthis and the US forces and the widening Israel-Hamas conflict will drag all other countries, including Saudi Arabia and Iran, directly. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which is a close ally of the US, will likely be pushed by the Biden administration against the Houthis. On the other hand, Iran’s backing of the Houthis and their ideological symmetry has resulted in Iran’s significant influence over the group. In that case, any action by Saudi Arabia against the Houthis can bring Iran up against it, again posing challenges to the recently struck rapprochement and regional security.

However, the escalating situation in the Middle East does not suit the US at the moment. Despite the full capacity, the Biden administration, which is already under severe criticism from Republican members and the voters back home for its excessive support to Ukraine and Israel, will not likely be able to initiate another front. Particularly, when it is the election year in 2024, the domestic political constraint will pose further challenges for the Democrats. Therefore, given the circumstances, this fissure in the Red Sea, linked to the situation in Gaza, requires a comprehensive approach.

It is also imperative that the US is losing influence on Israel for the first time in history. The role of the US as a leader of the liberal world also demands putting a halt to Israel’s actions in the Middle East. So, it requires Washington’s responsible behaviour, showing restraint and engaging all the actors in the Middle East to avoid further escalation.

To sum up, the widening Israel-Hamas conflict, which is now impacting global trade and commerce, is posing a regional security threat. Such threats can travel from one state to another, therefore bringing turmoil that can last for decades. The Middle East cannot sustain another long regional conflict after the stability achieved last year.

Usman Zulfiqar Ali

Usman Zulfiqar Ali is a Communications and Research Assistant at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research (CSCR). His research focuses mainly on China’s geopolitical and international affairs. He tweets @UsmanZulfiqar and can be reached at

Leave a Comment


Welcome! Login in to your account

Remember me Lost your password?

Lost Password