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Strikes, Statements and Self-Defence - A History of The Conflict In The Red Sea

Melissa Dib

Source: AFP via Getty Images

The Republic of Yemen’s civil war has been transpiring for almost 10 years and has recently escalated with repeated attacks by Houthi rebels on ships transiting the Red Sea - which they argue are in response to Israel’s war on Hamas. Around 12% of trade passes through the Red Sea, so the threat of these on-going attacks are causing shipping companies to suspend services altogether, with a huge impact on international trade. Shipping giants such as Maersk and Hapag-Lloyd are instead spending an extra $1 million on fuel costs per trip in order to avoid the volatile area. 

The Republic of Yemen is an Arab country occupying the South-western to Southern end of the Arabian Peninsula, and shares its borders with Saudi Arabia and Oman. Whilst Yemen as a territory predates Islam, it has rarely been under the rule of a single government. For many years the nation was split into two - the northern Yemen Arab Republic and the southern People’s Democratic of Yemen, which eventually unified in 1990. The north of Yemen was subject to a series of Zaidi imams, a branch of Shia Islam, with varying spiritual authority in the North, whereas the South of Yemen was occupied by British influence. The country is made up of Shia Zaidism, with a small Isma’illi minority, and Sunni Muslims forming the majority religion in now unified Yemen. However, the rise of political Islam has continued to raise tensions between Sunni and Zaidi areas, a large contributing factor to the emergence of the Houthi movement, a political organisation and military group which emerged in Yemen in the 1990s and have been a main actor in the Yemen Civil War since 2014.

Beginning in 2014, Houthi insurgents took control of Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, demanding lower fuel prices and a change in government. Failed negotiations led to rebels seizing the Presidential Palace in 2015, forcing the then Government to resign.

After Reunification, Rising Tensions, and Military Missions 

Following Yemen’s reunification, the civil war between the armies of the North and the South began in 1994. Then President Ali Abdullah Saleh reached a mutual treaty with Saudi Arabia called the Treaty of Jeddah in 2000, seeking to disarm the Houthis. 

Tensions escalated from 2004 to 2010 between the Saleh government and the Houthi’s - led by Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi. During this time period of growing animosity, Saleh granted amnesty to 6000 Houthi fighters and managed to finally reach a cease-fire in 2007. By July 2008, Saleh declared an end to the fighting, however in 2009 the Yemeni military simultaneously launched Operation Scorched Earth and Operation Blow to the Head in an attempt to quash the insurgents in one of Yemen’s most culturally significant city’s - Saada. 

By January 2011 there were rising demonstrations calling for an end to Saleh’s 33-year rule as the Arab Spring reached Yemen. Saleh conceded and promised to not seek re-election, however protests continued to spread. Security forces and Saleh launched a crackdown that led to between 200 – 2000 civilians killed, with the final death toll never able to be confirmed. By September 2011 Saleh’s deputy Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi was forced to form a unity government with the Houthis and other Yemen Political Groups before being sworn in in 2012. 

The Houthi Takeover

In 2015 the Saudi Arabian government implemented a naval blockade that prevented Iran from supplying the Houthis, causing Iran to raise the risk of military escalation between the nations. The Houthis made a fast progression towards Marib, the capital of Saaba, however were pushed back as a result of Saudi intervention. The United Nations attempted to assist both parties in reaching an amicable agreement, however, and these discussions between Houthi Rebels and the Yemeni Government led to the formation of a political council to govern Sana’a in July 2016. Former President Saleh was killed in December 2017 following a battle between Houthi and Saleh supporters, where Saleh was accused of treason. In 2018 coalition forces made an offensive push into Hodeidah, eventually leading to a ceasefire. Since 2018, the UAE has officially withdrawn from Yemen, but still has extensive influence in the nation, consistently launching offensive attacks against the capital Marib

The conflict in Yemen has taken a confronting toll on Yemeni civilians, making Yemen the nation with the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The United Nations has estimated that the majority of the 377,000 deaths were a result of food insecurity and an inability to access adequate health services. There is no question that Yemen remains in critical need of assistance. A compounding economic and humanitarian crisis continues to put Yemenis at risk and the United States (US) is also suspected of conducting counter-terrorism operations in Yemen.

By October 2022, the cease-fire between the nations officially lapsed and peace talks between Saudi and Houthi officials resumed in April 2023, with Oman acting as a mediator. There is a hope for a peaceful political settlement to take place between Iran and Saudi Arabia and talks to re-establish diplomatic relationships given their establishing a naval blockade to halt supplies to Houthi rebels.

Moving forward

In December 2023, the US announced the launch of Operation Prosperity Guardian, a military coalition aimed at protecting the Red Sea from Houthi missile and drone attacks. Britain has also been involved, carrying out airstrikes against Houthi targets in Yemen since January 2024. Following the 17 January US Department of State re-designation of the Houthis as a ‘Specially Designated Global Terrorist Group’ there are few options that remain. Indeed, there is much international support for the US Operation to halt Houthi escalation within the Red Sea.

The US has arguably respected Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s decision to not send warships to the Middle East to help secure international shipping lanes in the Red Sea, according to the Prime Minister himself. The US appreciates Australia’s decision to send personnel to the top priority areas within the region and provide additional support where appropriate. Albanese rejected any international criticisms that his government was not doing all that was necessary to aid the United States in its military efforts against the Houthis. Albanese argues that this decision has not hindered any existing relationships with the US, however many opposing politicians have criticised the Prime Minister’s supposed lack of support for Australia’s allies. 

Few options remain to de-escalate the conflict in the Red Sea, however considering the international support for missions such as Operation Propensity Guardian, the US may opt for more indirect means to reduce the Houthi impact. Despite this, there remains a long way to go in minimising the conflict in Yemen without prompting further radicalisation of the Houthi.


Melissa Dib is a fifth-year Law and Business (Human Resource Management) student at the University of Technology, Sydney. She is currently an intern at the New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties and Research Assistant at the UTS Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education and Research. Her experience varies from education and tutoring, to mentoring, legal research and advocacy. She has written articles pertaining to employment relations, whistleblower legislation, the Voice Referendum, anti-discrimination and modern slavery. She also is an avid mooter, having competed at intervarsity and national levels and was nominated as a finalist for the 2023 Female Law Student of the Year awards. Melissa is extremely excited to be joining YDS in 2024 as a contributing writer and hopes to blend her passions for law and human rights and international relations when writing up engaging and informative pieces about topics she is interested in and passionate about!



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