Saudi Arabia has announced the release of a Saudi tugboat which had been hijacked by the Iran-backed Houthi militia in the Bab al-Mandeb Strait at the southern mouth of the Red Sea, according to a statement by the Saudi-led Coalition to Restore Legitimacy in Yemen, on Wednesday November 20th.
Turki al Malki, the coalition spokesperson, announced that the tugboat (Rabigh 3) “fell under hijacking and armed robbery and was boarded by two boats manned by terrorist elements of the terrorist Iran-backed Houthi militia on Sunday,” according to his statement on Monday November 18th.
The hijacking also involved two South Korean vessels, with 16 people on their board, that were being towed by the Saudi boat, as reported by South Korea's Foreign Ministry.
Seoul in response sent the South Korean navy ship Cheonghae, which had been on anti-piracy duties off the coast of Oman, to waters near where the incident took place.
The internationally recognised Yemeni government commented on the incident, saying that the "Houthi's hijacking of the Korean vessels confirms that it is a group threatening the security of the world.”
The Houthi acknowledgement that they had perpetrated the attack raises fears of further threats to maritime security in the vital sea lanes close to the Gulf region. Meanwhile Iran’s dependence on the Houthis as the proxies of aggressions operations risks any negotiations rounds with US, triggering “maximum pressure” to persist.
This fresh piracy attack is not the first where the finger can be pointed at Iran. Teheran has been blamed for a series of naval attacks and harassments in the Gulf that started last May and were targeted at vessels from Europe, US and the Middle East. Washington unequivocally accused Iran of being behind these attacks in its initial assessments of the incidents.
The Saudi-led coalition has reiterated its commitment to securing the Bab al-Mandeb strait, which connects the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden, according to its statement issued after the release of the hijacked vessels.
A Saudi cabinet session, chaired by King Salman, also condemned the rebels on Tuesday, saying such incidents pose a threat to the freedom of international navigation and trade.
Iranian support for the Houthis in their maritime insurgency activities which threaten security in the southern Red Sea was revealed in a study by the Georgetown University Centre for Security Studies in late 2018.
The Foundation for Defence of Democracies has estimated that Houthi attacks in the Bab al Mandab Strait amount to 40 separate incidents. Global Risk Insights, a UK-based political risk analysis centre, highlighted in a recent report in October that the Houthis have received training and advice on use of weapons for attacks against commercial ships from Hezbollah, a militia group based in Lebanon and affiliated with Iran.
In response to this year’s increased threats to maritime security due to attacks bearing Iranian hallmarks, the US has urged six countries to join the International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC) that aims to ensure “freedom of navigation and free flow of commerce in international waters.”
“No offensive line of effort in this construct, other than a commitment to defend each other if attacked,” is how the US command stressed the role of this naval coalition for greater security.
The Houthis not only threaten shipping, but also hinder the delivery of much-needed aid for Yemeni families suffering under the militia blockade. The United Nations says the Houthis attacked two oil tankers last year in the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, as well as a vessel carrying wheat to Yemen, where civilians are currently experiencing the world's worst humanitarian crisis.
The continuing Houthi aggression on interests of a growing number of countries may yet demolish peace efforts sought by global parties, such as the Stockholm Agreement which has been struck between Yemen’s government and the Houthi rebels. If the Houthi militias continue their strategy of attacks, a “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran may stand as the only effective way of stopping its illegal acts, including support of proxies to destabilize the region.