Iran Threatens to Take Red Sea Disruption to New Waters

A screen grab captured from a Houthi Media Center video shows the cargo ship Galaxy being hijacked by Iran-backed Houthis from Yemen in the Red Sea on Nov. 20, 2023. Houthis Media Center/Anadolu via Getty Images
A screen grab captured from a Houthi Media Center video shows the cargo ship Galaxy being hijacked by Iran-backed Houthis from Yemen in the Red Sea on Nov. 20, 2023. Houthis Media Center/Anadolu via Getty Images

So risky has the Red Sea become since Houthi militants started their attacks on shipping that, since late November, over 350 container ships—plus all manner of tankers, bulk carriers, car carriers, and other merchant vessels—have diverted to other routes. That means massive logistical challenges that involve not just new charts and more fuel but getting crews and cargo to alternative staging posts. Because shipping is extraordinarily efficient, most won’t notice a thing. But if the attacks on shipping continue, we’ll start paying for the service. And we would do well to anticipate Houthi-like campaigns in other waters.

Not a day passes without more turbulence in the Red Sea. Since Christmas Eve, the inlet that links countries including Egypt and Saudi Arabia has seen multiple Houthi attacks, including against a Swiss-owned container ship and a Norwegian tanker.

Drama in the Red Sea is, of course, nothing new, going all the way back to the biblical book of Exodus. Yet today’s users of the Red Sea can’t hope for divine intervention. To be sure, the U.S. military has launched Operation Prosperity Guardian to protect Red Sea shipping, and since Christmas Eve the force has, among other things, shot down 12 attack drones and five missiles launched by the Yemen-based, Iran-backed Houthis. But counterfire from Western navies in response to Houthi attacks doesn’t yield the sort of chartable sailing environment shipping lines need. It may help solve the problem in the long-term, but it does little right now.

What’s more, it’s unclear which ships can expect escort. The French Navy seems to prioritize French-flagged vessels, but—as I have often discussed in Foreign Policy’s pages—most vessels sail under a flag of convenience, are owned in one country and managed in another, have foreign crew members, and carry cargo between altogether other places.

What qualifies as a U.S., or French, or Norwegian vessel in the Red Sea can be deeply uncertain. And shipping—and most importantly, the insurers—is all about reducing risk. That means the largest shipping lines have instead begun diverting their ships to other routes. By Dec. 24, some 280 box ships had already been rerouted, as had lots of tankers, bulk carriers, car carriers, and other merchant vessels. (By Dec. 27, Maersk and CMA CGM had announced they would gradually be returning to the Red Sea—but if the situation continues to deteriorate they can divert again.)

That means a sudden procession of ships taking the much longer route via the Cape of Good Hope on South Africa’s southwestern coast. “Shipping companies are extremely busy right now”, Cormac McGarry, a maritime analyst at consultancy Control Risks, told Foreign Policy. “They’ve been working over Christmas, changing routes. The first thing that happens when you divert is the legal aspect—a clause in shipping contracts allows shipping lines to divert if there’s a war risk. And then you have to decide where to divert your ships to”. The Cape of Good Hope route, which the Suez Canal’s construction once made redundant for long-distance cargo, is suddenly en vogue again.

As large parts of the global public now know, traveling via the Cape of Good Hope rather than the Suez Canal adds an additional 10 to 12 days of sailing—and a completely different route for captains and their top lieutenants to chart. But that’s perhaps the easiest part. “Planning a new route doesn’t take much time when working with electronic charts, but rounding the Cape does bring new considerations”, a senior officer who works on the largest types of container ships told Foreign Policy.

Those new, and thorny, considerations include getting crews and cargo to where they need to be—because, in many cases, ships’ current crews are scheduled to finish their rotations and other seafarers are waiting to take over. “If you’re going around South Africa, you may need to stop somewhere during the journey for bunkering and change of crews”, McGarry pointed out. “And if you’re changing a crew out of somewhere in southern Africa rather [than] somewhere around Suez, you need to change where they fly to and from”.

McGarry said ordinarily ships might change crews and cargo near the canal; now, the changes will need to occur in places such as Mombasa, Kenya; Durban, South Africa; Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; or Gran Canaria, one of Spain’s Canary Islands. Just before Christmas, Mombasa and Dar es Salaam were reporting a massive spike in ship arrivals; in the case of Dar es Salaam, the sudden rush had resulted in a 16-day wait to refuel. “ [Diversion] can be done, and the shipping lines are doing”, McGarry said. “But it brings additional costs”.

Those costs are there whatever route the ships take: Journeys through the Red Sea bring hefty war risk premiums, and the Cape of Good Hope route brings additional fuel costs, not to mention the costs of rerouting crews and cargo. Several shipping lines have already imposed surcharges for their services. The delays and extra costs may, in fact, merely be the first chapter in the geopolitically connected turbulence facing global shipping and, as a result, the globalized economy.

The Red Sea turbulence is also bringing trouble to nearby countries. With ships spending as little time as possible in the Red Sea, countries such as Sudan and Eritrea—whose only ports are located on the Red Sea—will struggle to get ships to call at their ports. Egypt, the custodian of the Suez Canal, is already suffering. And with less traffic through the canal, shipping to Mediterranean countries such as Greece, Italy, and Turkey will become especially cumbersome.

Iran, in fact, seems to have concluded that the Houthis’ experiment in the Red Sea has been so successful that it bears repeating in the Mediterranean. “They shall soon await the closure of the Mediterranean Sea, [the Strait of] Gibraltar and other waterways”, Brig. Gen. Mohammad Reza Naqdi, the coordinating commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, told Iranian media on Dec. 23, apparently referring to the international community.

Spare a thought for the world’s seafarers and shipping logisticians—there’s no holiday break for 2024’s troubled waters.

Elisabeth Braw is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a senior associate fellow at the European Leadership Network.

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