Over the last fortnight, it appears the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen is closer than ever to launching an assault on the Houthi-controlled port of Hodeidah. A mysterious fire and a recent attack on Saudi naval forces have brought renewed attention to the port. Hodeidah is home to Yemen’s only maritime container terminal and is the country’s fourth largest city.
After initial successes both the coalition campaign in Yemen and peace talks designed to end the conflict have bogged down. Yemen is unlike other conflicts in the Middle East because it has a significant naval component.
Houthis allege that 16 civilians, including seven children, were killed in an apparent Saudi airstrike on Hodeidah on Monday. A UNICEF statement confirmed children had been killed in the attack and called on both sides in the conflict to respect the rights of children.
Saudi Arabia is now reporting that one of its oil tankers came under attack from Houthi naval forces on Tuesday.
It would not be the first time.
In 2016, the American destroyer USS Mason came under fire from Houthi rebels multiple times. The U.S. Navy responded with a targeted missile strike. The Houthis have also used naval drones to attack commercial traffic and warships. In an incident in January last year, three Houthi naval drones rammed a Saudi frigate in the Red Sea, killing two crew members. The U.S. government has revealed that at least one of the drones used by Houthi forces in these attacks had Iranian-built guidance systems.
The Houthis have also deployed an unknown number of free-floating sea mines into the Bab-el-Mandeb waterway between Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula. One such mine killed two Yemeni coast guardsmen in March 2017 while they were attempting to disarm the device. Mines could pose a threat to ships transiting through one of the busiest maritime corridors in the world where roughly 4 percent of the world’s oil supply must pass.
Seizing Hodeidah could serve to reduce the risks to maritime traffic in the region, but the coalition has hesitated to undertake such action for months over humanitarian concerns.
Hodeidah: a strategic port
Last week, a mysterious fire ripped through a storage facility in Hodeidah used to store food aid in a country on the brink of starvation.
Hodeidah handled 90 percent of the nation’s foodstuffs and the humanitarian aid flow before the war. In recognition of the growing humanitarian crisis, Saudi Arabia announced in November that the city would be opened for imports of humanitarian aid – including fuel.
With the support of the American government, four World Food Programme cranes arrived in Hodeidah in January. Similar cranes have been installed in other Yemeni cities in a bid to increase port capacity.
The United Nations believes 22 million people in Yemen are in need of humanitarian assistance.
To ease the suffering caused by the three-year-long conflict, Saudi Arabia initiated a $2 billion cash transfer to Yemen’s internationally recognized government in March in a move that bolstered Yemen’s currency.
The U.N. has repeatedly condemned any military action against Hodeidah. Last year Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov issued a veiled threat against Saudi military action against the port.
“There are also worrying rumors about an assault on Hodeidah and then a move on (the capital) Sana’a,” he told a U.N. conference. “This is something we cannot allow to happen.”
Since then the coalition has focused on a land campaign to close the noose around the port, but that may soon change.
Saudi Arabia and its main partner, the United Arab Emirates, believe that seizing Hodeidah will put both military and economic pressure on the Houthi rebels to reenter peace talks. They also hope it will increase maritime security in the region and reduce the Houthis’ ability to obtain the sort of weapons used in their attacks on Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia is leading a vast coalition fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, who overran much of the country in 2015. From Senegal (troops) to China (weapons sales) more than a dozen countries are involved in the campaign. The U.S. and France have provided intelligence and logistics to coalition operations in the past. Both countries have also reportedly intercepted weapons shipments intended for the Houthis.
The coalition has reportedly interdicted Houthi elements trying to reinforce the position in Hodeidah by the sea in a sign that suggests the rebels are willing to take considerable risks to maintain their hold on the port.
UAE to take a leading role
The UAE will likely take a leading role in any offensive against Hodeidah.
“The UAE military has really shown a lot of battlefield initiative, competency and willingness to engage in a long-term counter-insurgency campaign,” said a State Department official working on Yemen who spoke to The Defense Post off the record.
Earlier in the conflict, UAE forces spearheaded operations that saw the coalition launch successful helicopter supported assaults on other port cities. The coalition and the Emiratis, in particular, have already pulled off successful amphibious assaults in the past.
“The Emiratis believe capturing Hodeidah will be a big moral victory and sap the strength of the Houthis,” David Anderson, an ex-U.S. Marine who is part of a research task force on Yemen, told The Defense Post. “Taking the port will not require urban fighting as the port is separate from the city.” Anderson says such an assault would likely include a mix of aerial and naval assets.
Lessons learned from the conflict have altered Saudi’s defence procurement strategy. A U.S.-Saudi Arabia arms deal reached by the Trump administration last year included the sale of littoral combat ships designed for coastal military actions of the type that have defined the Yemen conflict.
Saudi Arabia’s defense establishment has also taken a renewed interest in helicopters. This year the U.S. Army procurement activity suggested that it would soon provide Saudi Arabia with 120 AH-6 helicopters. The lightly armed craft is suitable for reconnaissance and some attack missions.
Other analysts believe the U.S. should place more emphasis on diplomatic solutions to the conflict rather than arms sales and logistical support.
“In my view, the most helpful thing the U.S. can do, both for its interests and for those of its Saudi partners, is to help Saudi Arabia and its allies begin to develop a practicable way out of the Yemen crisis,” Hussein Ibish, Senior Resident Scholar at The Arab Gulf States Institute, told The Defense Post.
“Ending the conflict, and even something less ambitious such as a viable medium-term cease-fire is strongly in both [American and Saudi] interests.”