Egypt monitoring battle for Hodeidah amid Red Sea concerns

Egypt’s interest in developments in Hodeidah lies in its reliance on trade through the Red Sea, via the Suez Canal.
Sunday 24/06/2018
Strategic shipping lanes. Ships sail across the Gulf of Suez towards the Red Sea before entering the Suez Canal, east of Cairo. (Reuters)
Strategic shipping lanes. Ships sail across the Gulf of Suez towards the Red Sea before entering the Suez Canal, east of Cairo. (Reuters)

CAIRO - Efforts to liberate the western Yemeni port city of Hodeidah from control of the Iran-backed Houthi militia are being closely watched in Egypt, with the expectation that international maritime movement in the area will undergo a huge boom after the city’s liberation.

“The Houthis have been posing a threat to the international maritime movement in the southern part of the Red Sea since they took control of the city,” said Akram Badreddine, a political science professor at Cairo University. “This is very dangerous, which is why there is an urgent need for support to ongoing efforts for the liberation of the city and its port from Houthi control.”

Troops affiliated with the internationally recognised Yemeni government have been carrying out all-out offensive to regain control of Hodeidah from the Houthis, scoring major successes, including liberating the Hodeidah airport.

The Houthis have become a major security threat to Saudi Arabia since they overran most of Yemen in 2014. Most of southern Saudi Arabia is within range of the Houthis ballistic missiles, which Riyadh alleges are being provided to the Houthis by Iran and smuggled in via the port of Hodeidah.

The Houthis have used the port to threaten navigation in the Red Sea, including damaging a UAE naval vessel.

That was not the first Houthi attack on vessels in the region. The Shia militia reportedly intercepted a UN vessel on June 4 that was being used by the World Food Programme to deliver humanitarian aid to the port.

In January, the Saudi-led coalition warned that the Houthis were trying to use so-called “boat bombs” — remote-controlled vessels loaded with explosives — against shipping in the Red Sea.

Egypt’s interest in developments in Hodeidah lies in its reliance on trade through the Red Sea, via the Suez Canal. Although Egypt has not officially commented on the dangers posed to Red Sea navigation by the Houthis, Cairo has demonstrated that it is acutely aware of possible perils and has contributed naval units to the Arab coalition.

In January 2017, Egypt opened a major naval base near the southern entrance to the Red Sea, apparently to be prepared for threats from the Yemeni coast.

“Egypt cannot stay silent while all these dangers are looming and in close proximity to its Red Sea coast,” said political analyst Abdel Monem Halawa.

Egypt’s concerns are based on a commitment to secure navigation in the Red Sea and to the Suez Canal. In 2014, Egypt spent billions of dollars revamping the canal with a parallel channel allowing for two-way traffic through the canal. Revenues from the Suez Canal are up — thanks to two-way shipping. There is a belief they would rise even higher once the situation in the southern Red Sea is secured.

Egypt is also preparing to explore oil and gas off its Red Sea coast, with seismic studies by an international coalition to investigate whether there are oil and gas reserves in the area.

“The protection of the Red Sea, from north to south, is a basic pillar of Egypt’s defence strategy,” Halawa said. “This is why any threats to this area are taken very seriously by Cairo.”

Freeing the strategic Hodeidah port from Houthi control would secure Red Sea waters and deal a major blow to the Houthis, who rely on the port to receive supplies.

“The port is the main point of contact between Tehran and the Houthis,” Badreddine said. “By controlling it, the Arab coalition will put an end to the delivery of Iranian arms to the Shia militia and consequently make the Arab Gulf and the Red Sea more secure.”

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