Ongoing Houthi Attacks on Western Trade Vessels in the Red Sea: Implications and Global Oil Dynamics


In recent months, the maritime security landscape in the Red Sea has been significantly altered due to the ongoing conflict involving the Houthi forces. The strategic importance of this region, particularly for global oil deliveries, cannot be overstated. The Red Sea serves as a critical chokepoint for the transportation of oil, connecting the oil-rich Persian Gulf countries with European and global markets. The escalating tensions have raised concerns about the safety and efficiency of these vital maritime routes.

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Escalation in Maritime Conflict: A Chronology of Houthi Attacks in the Red Sea (2018-2023)

Over the past five years, there have been several significant attacks by the Houthi militia on ships in the Red Sea, which have had profound implications for global trade and maritime security. These attacks are part of the broader conflict in Yemen and have targeted both military and commercial vessels. The following is a summary of notable incidents:

  • July 2018: Houthis attacked two Saudi Arabian oil tankers in the Red Sea, leading Saudi Arabia to temporarily halt oil shipments through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. One of the tankers suffered minor damage.
  • April 2018: A Turkish bulk carrier was attacked by the Houthis off the coast of Yemen. The ship was carrying wheat to Yemen’s Saleef port but was hit by a missile, causing substantial damage.
  • January 2018: A Saudi frigate patrolling off the coast of Yemen was attacked by three Houthi boats. The attack resulted in the death of two crew members and caused significant damage to the frigate.
  • October 2016: The HSV-2 Swift, a high-speed transport vessel leased by the UAE, was attacked by the Houthis near the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. The ship was severely damaged by a missile.
  • Earlier Attacks: Prior to 2018, there were several other incidents involving Houthi attacks on ships, including attacks on other Saudi and UAE naval vessels, as well as attempts to target US warships.
  • December 26, 2023: Houthis claimed responsibility for a missile attack on a container ship in the Red Sea and for an attempt to attack Israel with drones. The MSC Mediterranean Shipping reported no injuries from the attack on its ship, the United VIII.
  • December 23, 2023: The United States shot down four drones headed towards a U.S. destroyer in the southern Red Sea, launched from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen.
  • December 18, 2023: The M/V Swan Atlantic was attacked in the southern Red Sea by multiple projectiles launched from Houthi-held territory.
  • December 16, 2023: The USS Carney shot down 14 drones launched by Houthis over the Red Sea.
  • December 15, 2023: A projectile from Houthi-controlled Yemen struck the Liberia-flagged, German-owned Al Jasrah ship, causing a fire but no injuries.
  • December 12, 2023: Houthis targeted the Norwegian commercial tanker STRINDA.
  • December 9, 2023: Houthis announced plans to target all ships heading to Israel, regardless of their nationality.
  • December 3, 2023: Three commercial vessels came under attack in international waters in the southern Red Sea.
  • November 19, 2023: Houthis seized a British-owned and Japanese-operated cargo ship in the southern Red Sea.
  • October 19, 2023: Houthis initiated a series of attacks targeting Southern Israel and ships in the Red Sea.

The pattern of these attacks indicates a significant escalation in Houthi military activities, impacting global trade and heightening security concerns in the Red Sea region. Several large shipping companies, including Maersk and BP, have responded by halting shipping through this corridor, opting for longer alternative routes that significantly increase transportation costs and time. The United States and its allies have been actively responding to these threats, including shooting down drones and setting up a multinational naval task force, Operation Prosperity Guardian, to protect ships in the region.

These attacks underscore the Houthis’ capability and willingness to target maritime vessels, posing significant risks to the shipping industry and to the security of one of the world’s key maritime trade routes. The situation has led to heightened naval security in the region and increased vigilance by commercial shipping companies operating in these waters.

These developments highlight the strategic importance of the Red Sea as a major artery for global trade and the potential consequences of conflict in this region on international shipping and trade​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​.

Yemen’s Impact on Red Sea Maritime Security and the Exclusion of China and Russia from Houthi Attacks

The Red Sea’s strategic importance in global oil logistics is brought into sharp relief by recent developments in the region, particularly the Houthi attacks on commercial shipping and the apparent exclusion of Chinese and Russian vessels from these assaults. This article aims to dissect the reasons behind these dynamics, focusing on the Red Sea’s role as a critical conduit for oil transportation and the geopolitical intricacies at play.

  • The Red Sea as a Global Oil Artery: The Red Sea is a critical maritime route, linking the oil-rich Persian Gulf with the Mediterranean Sea through the Suez Canal and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. Data from Kpler indicates that 7 to 8 million barrels per day of crude oil and petroleum products transit this route, making up about 12% of global crude exports and 14-15% of oil product exports. Any disruption in this vital artery can lead to significant repercussions for global oil markets, impacting supply chains and global oil prices.
  • Yemen’s Geopolitical Context: Yemen’s strategic location along the southern end of the Red Sea makes it a focal point in regional geopolitics. The ongoing conflict in Yemen, involving the Houthi movement, has added a layer of complexity to the security of this vital maritime corridor. The Houthis, backed by Iran, have been engaged in a protracted conflict with a Saudi-led coalition that includes support from Western powers. This conflict has occasionally spilled over into maritime confrontations in the Red Sea.
  • Houthi Attacks on Commercial Shipping: The Houthi rebels have targeted commercial shipping in the Red Sea, posing a threat to the free flow of maritime traffic. These attacks are part of their broader military strategy to exert pressure on the Saudi-led coalition and international stakeholders. The targeting of commercial vessels is also a message of defiance and capability, demonstrating the Houthis’ reach and impact on a critical global trade route.
  • Exclusion of China and Russia from Attacks: Interestingly, the Houthis have declared an exclusion of Chinese and Russian vessels from their attacks. This decision can be viewed through the lens of international relations and the Houthis’ strategic interests. Russia and China have maintained a more neutral or favorable stance towards the Houthis, especially in international forums such as the United Nations. By excluding these nations’ vessels, the Houthis might be attempting to maintain these countries’ diplomatic goodwill or support. Both China and Russia are key players in international politics, with veto power in the UN Security Council. Their stance on the Yemen conflict can influence international perception and decisions, making it advantageous for the Houthis to avoid antagonizing these powers.
  • Implications for Global Oil Markets: The Houthi attacks, and their selective targeting, have implications for global oil markets. There’s an increased risk premium for shipping in the Red Sea, which can translate into higher insurance costs and potentially higher oil prices. The exclusion of Chinese and Russian vessels might lead to a realignment of shipping patterns, with these countries possibly facing lower risks and costs in transporting oil through the Red Sea.
  • International Responses: The international community, particularly Western nations and regional powers like Saudi Arabia, are deeply concerned about the security of the Red Sea shipping lanes. There have been efforts, both diplomatic and military, to safeguard these routes and counter the Houthi threat. The situation has also led to increased naval presence in the region, as global powers seek to protect their interests and ensure the uninterrupted flow of oil and other commodities. The strategic importance of the Red Sea in global oil logistics is undeniable, and the current dynamics involving Yemen’s conflict and the Houthi movement add layers of complexity to this crucial region. The Houthis’ targeting of commercial vessels, coupled with their strategic decision to exclude Chinese and Russian ships, highlights the intersection of regional conflicts with global trade and geopolitics. As the situation evolves, it will continue to have significant implications for global oil markets and international diplomatic and security strategies.

Impact on Oil Prices and Industry Response Amid Red Sea Tensions

The ongoing geopolitical tensions in the Red Sea, a crucial maritime route for global oil logistics, have surprisingly not resulted in significant fluctuations in major oil benchmarks such as Brent crude and West Texas Intermediate (WTI). This stability in oil prices, amidst a scenario that traditionally would lead to volatility, offers an interesting case study of the current dynamics in the global oil market.

  • Current State of Oil Prices and Potential Future Trends : The current dynamics of Brent crude oil prices in the context of the Yemen conflict and global geopolitical tensions reflect a complex interplay of market factors, geopolitical risks, and supply-demand balances. As of now, different financial and energy information sources provide varied projections for Brent crude prices in 2024. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) forecasts an average price of $82 per barrel for Brent crude in 2024, which is close to the 2023 average. This forecast is based on the expectation of a balanced global supply and demand of petroleum liquids​​. In contrast, Citi has lowered its 2024 Brent price prediction to $74 per barrel, influenced by a combination of factors including geopolitical tensions and global economic growth forecasts. The bank also anticipates a significant surplus in 2025, even if OPEC+ maintains its output cuts until then​​​​. Barclays presents a different view, initially lowering its forecast for Brent crude in 2024 to $93 per barrel due to concerns over demand, but subsequently revising it upwards to $97 per barrel as the market tightens. This upward revision seems to be influenced by various factors including geopolitical risks and supply conditions​​​​. JP Morgan’s forecast sits at an average of $83 for Brent crude in 2024, reflecting the balancing act between economic growth, supply considerations, and geopolitical risks​​. These varying predictions underscore the uncertainty in the oil markets, heavily influenced by ongoing geopolitical tensions, including the Yemen conflict. The situation in the Red Sea, where Houthi rebels have targeted international oil vessels, adds to the complexity of these predictions. The conflict has the potential to disrupt one of the world’s key oil transit routes, thereby impacting global supply and, consequently, oil prices. However, the global oil market’s response to these tensions has been somewhat muted so far, likely due to diversified supply chains, strategic reserves, and the ability of major oil-producing countries to adjust outputs to balance market disruptions. The future trajectory of Brent crude prices will largely depend on how these geopolitical tensions unfold, alongside other global economic factors influencing oil demand and supply.
  • Industry Response: The oil industry’s response to the Red Sea tensions has been marked by strategic adaptability. Companies have been closely monitoring the situation, ready to adjust their shipping routes and supply strategies if needed. The relative stability of oil prices also reflects the industry’s resilience and its ability to absorb and adapt to geopolitical shocks, a capability that has been enhanced in recent years due to technological advancements and strategic diversification.

The recent surge in maritime risks in the Red Sea, primarily due to the Houthi attacks on commercial vessels, has prompted notable shifts in the operational strategies of major oil companies. This article aims to dissect these tactical shifts, exploring the reasons behind the varied responses of oil giants like Chevron, Shell, and British Petroleum (BP) in the face of heightened security concerns.

  • The Context of Increased Maritime Risk: The Red Sea, a critical maritime route for global oil logistics, has witnessed a rise in security threats, notably from the Houthi attacks targeting commercial shipping. These attacks have raised alarms about the safety and reliability of oil transportation through this crucial region. The strategic location of Yemen, bordering the Red Sea, and the ongoing conflict involving the Houthi rebels have directly impacted maritime operations, necessitating a reevaluation of risks and strategies by oil companies.
  • Chevron’s Strategy: Cooperation for Security: Chevron has chosen to continue its oil transportation through the Red Sea. This decision is underpinned by Chevron’s collaboration with the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which provides enhanced security and naval protection for its vessels. This approach reflects a confidence in military capabilities to mitigate risks. Chevron’s reliance on US naval support indicates a belief that the benefits of continuing to use this shorter and more cost-effective route outweigh the potential threats.
  • Shell and BP’s Approach: Suspension of Shipments: In contrast, Shell and BP have opted to suspend their shipments through the Red Sea. This decision likely stems from a different risk assessment, where the potential threats are deemed too high to justify continuing operations in the region. The suspension of shipments can be seen as a cautious approach, prioritizing the safety of vessels and crew over the economic benefits of the shorter Red Sea route. It also reflects a sensitivity to the potential reputational risks associated with maritime incidents.
  • Differing Risk Assessments and Operational Strategies: The varied responses from Chevron, Shell, and BP highlight the diverse risk assessments and operational strategies within the oil industry. Each company’s decision is influenced by its own analysis of security risks, operational flexibility, and the potential impact on supply chains. These tactical shifts also reflect broader corporate philosophies regarding risk management, with some companies adopting a more assertive stance, while others take a more conservative approach.
  • Broader Implications for the Oil Industry: The differing strategies among oil majors may lead to a realignment of shipping patterns in the region. Companies continuing to use the Red Sea route may incur additional costs related to enhanced security measures, while those avoiding it face longer transit times and higher shipping costs. These tactical shifts have broader implications for global oil markets, potentially affecting supply routes, delivery times, and ultimately, oil prices.
  • Future Outlook and Industry Adaptation: The situation in the Red Sea is dynamic, and oil companies must remain agile in adapting their strategies to changing security landscapes. Continuous monitoring and reassessment of risks will be crucial. The ongoing conflict in Yemen and its impact on Red Sea maritime security may also drive innovation in shipping and logistics, as companies seek to mitigate risks and ensure the continuous flow of oil.

The Anomaly of Russian Oil Shipments: Unpacking the Dynamics and Geopolitical Interplays in the Red Sea

The recent increase in Russian oil shipments through the Red Sea, despite the heightened maritime tensions due to Houthi attacks, presents a fascinating anomaly in the global oil trade. This phenomenon, coupled with the Houthi declaration to refrain from targeting Russian or Chinese vessels, raises important questions about the underlying geopolitical dynamics and deals that might be influencing these developments. To understand why this is happening, we need to explore several key aspects:

  • Geopolitical Context and Regional Alignments: Yemen, at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, is strategically positioned near major shipping routes in the Red Sea, making it a geopolitical hotspot. The ongoing conflict in Yemen has seen various international actors, including Russia and China, play influential roles. Russia’s involvement in the Middle East has been marked by a strategy to expand its influence and establish itself as a key player. This includes building relationships with different factions and states, irrespective of their ties with Western powers.
  • The Houthi Stance and Russian Diplomacy: The Houthis, a significant force in Yemen’s complex war, have received diplomatic support from Russia. Russia’s stance in the Yemen conflict has been somewhat neutral, often calling for peaceful resolutions and dialogues. The decision by the Houthis not to target Russian (and Chinese) vessels could be seen as a reciprocal gesture for Russia’s balanced diplomatic approach and possibly for behind-the-scenes negotiations or agreements.
  • Russian Oil Trade Strategies Amid Global Sanctions: Post-2020, Russia has faced increasing sanctions from Western countries. These sanctions have pushed Russia to seek alternative markets and trade routes for its oil exports. The surge in Russian oil shipments via the Red Sea could be part of a broader strategy to reroute its oil exports to non-Western countries, particularly in Asia and Africa, where there is less compliance with Western sanctions.
  • China’s Role and the Economic Interests: China has significant economic interests in the region, including oil imports and investments in infrastructure projects like the Belt and Road Initiative. The apparent understanding between the Houthis and China could be linked to China’s broader strategy to secure its energy imports and investments in the region.
  • Navigational Realities and Market Dynamics: The Red Sea is a critical route for global oil transport. The ability of Russian oil to traverse this area unimpeded is crucial for maintaining its oil export levels. The increased volume of Russian oil shipments could also be attributed to market dynamics, where buyers are seeking alternatives to Western oil sources.
  • International Responses and Future Implications: This development has not gone unnoticed globally. Western powers are likely monitoring this situation closely, given its implications for international energy markets and geopolitical balances. The situation also underscores the complexity of global energy politics, where economic interests often intersect with geopolitical strategies.

The increased Russian oil shipments through the Red Sea amidst the Yemen conflict highlight the intricate interplay of geopolitics, economics, and regional dynamics. While the precise nature of any deals or understandings between Russia, China, and the Houthis remains speculative, the situation reflects the evolving nature of international relations and energy politics in a multipolar world. As the global community grapples with energy security and political stability, the Red Sea corridor will remain a critical focal point for understanding these broader trends.

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