Following the recent tightening of the Saudi-led coalition blockade of Yemeni ports, the UN warned that if conditions persist, Yemen will suffer “the largest famine the world has seen for many decades, with millions of victims”. The political upheaval in Saudi Arabia instigated by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has served to increase uncertainty in the region and prolong the conflict stalemate in neighbouring Yemen. Blockaded rebels in the south have threatened vessels transiting in the coastal area, rising the possibility of conflict-related maritime incidents.
On 4 November Saudi Arabian defence forces intercepted a ballistic missile targeting the King Khalid International Airport on the northern outskirts of Riyadh, reportedly launched from southern Yemen by Houthi rebels. Two days later Saudi-led military forces imposed a temporary closure on all air, land and sea ports across Yemen. The decision to tighten the blockade on Yemen was motivated by Riyadh’s assertion that Iran continues to covertly supply weapons to the Houthi rebels.
Since then Saudi Arabia has eased the blockade, largely in response to international criticism, and on 13 November announced the reopening of some airports and sea ports to allow the transport of humanitarian aid. UN officials remain discontent as Saudi Arabia refuses to open ports in rebel-held territory until stricter provisions that prevent the illicit transport of weapons and money are agreed upon and enacted. On the following day Saudi-led coalition forces allegedly bombed Sana’a airport, which has been closed to all flights excluding UN aid shipments since August 2016.
Escalation of military engagement
Recent political developments in Saudi Arabia lend insight in to the escalation of military engagement within Yemen. On 4 November, the same day as the missile interception over the capital, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman initiated a campaign of arrests that has led to the detention of at least 49 influential figures. Among those detained are 11 princes, four officials and 10 clerics, all of whom are facing corruption charges.
Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been a forceful advocate of the campaign in Yemen, launching the war in March 2015 as Minister of Defence despite his lack of military experience. However, since the war entered a period of stalemate he has been less vocal about the conflict and in August 2017 a series of leaked e-mails indicated he wanted out of the conflict.
It is likely that Prince bin Salman is seeking to escalate the conflict in order to, at the very least, show a semblance of progress in a costly stalemated war that has resulted in cross-border attacks in southern Saudi Arabia. This clashes with his ambitious “Vision 2030” socioeconomic plan, especially as Saudi Arabia has slipped in to recession since the beginning of Q3 2017 after two quarters of economic contraction.
As the movement within Saudi Arabia increases uncertainty, Houthi rebels in Yemen have reasserted their devotion to the war effort. On 13 November Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, the head of the so-called supreme revolutionary committee of the Houthi militias, threatened that rebel forces are seeking to target commercial vessels, especially oil tankers, in ways that have not been witnessed previously.
An underlying threat near the coast
With fewer checks and balances within Saudi Arabia, and the Crown Prince’s reputation as Minister of Defence at risk, it is likely that ports in rebel held territory (including Port Al-Hudaydah and Port Saleef) will remain closed in the medium term. In light of recent developments, commercial vessels transiting the southern Red Sea are advised to avoid approaching the Yemeni coast and adhere to the instructions of Saudi-led coalition vessels in the area. Though a direct Houthi attack targeting a commercial vessel remains unlikely, stakeholders are advised that rebel-controlled shore-based unguided missiles continue to pose an underlying threat to shipping off western Yemen.