About the Houthi Red Sea blockage.

The announcement that NZ has joined with 13 other maritime trade-dependent states in warning Houthis in Yemen to cease their attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea (particularly in the Bad-el-Mandeb Strait) got me to thinking of about some finer points embedded in the confrontation (beyond wondering if NZ will send a warship to join the US-led task force being assembled to protect commercial shipping in the Red Sea. After all, joining group communiques is cheap. Putting grey hulls into remote conflict zones is not)).

First, even though they are also maritime trade dependent, India, Indonesia and the PRC, among other Asian states, have not joined the coalition. This suggests that protection of freedom of navigation is not the sole criteria behind the decision to join or not, something confirmed by the fact that other than Bahrain, all of the signatories to the statement are 5 Eyes partners, NATO members or NATO partners (like Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea). Bahrain is the location of the US Navy Central Command, the US Fifth Fleet and the combined task force (CTF-153) responsible for overseeing “Operation Prosperity Guardian,” the name given to the anti-Houthi maritime defense campaign. It has a strained relationship with Iran due to its suspicion that Iran foments unrest among it’s Shia majority (which is ruled by a Sunni aristocracy). Like many Sunni oligarchies, it sees the Houthis as Iranian proxies.

Some Muslim majority states may have declined to join Operation Prosperity Guardian out of caution rather than solidarity with the Palestinians. Anti-Israel demonstrations have broken out throughout the Islamic world, so reasons of domestic stability and elite preservation may be as much behind the calculus to decline as are sympathies with Gazans or Houthis. Conversely, nations that are not as dependent on Red Sea maritime routes (say, in the Western Hemisphere) may see little to be gained by taking sides in a conflict that does not involve their core national interests (matters of principle aside).

The name of the Operation suggests that is focused on maritime security and freedom of navigation. Twelve percent of the world’s trade passes through Bad-el-Mandeb. There is an average of 400 ships in the Red Sea at any one time. The Houthis have launched dozens of attacks on Red Sea shipping since the Gaza-Israel War began using a variety of delivery platforms. The situation has the potential for expansion into regional war, and even if it is not, it is adding transportation time delays and billions in additional costs to the global supply chain, something that will sooner or later be reflected in the cost of commodities, goods and services.

But there is a twist to this tale. The Houthis claim that they are only targeting ships that are suspected of being in- or outward-bound from Israel as well as the warships that seek to protect them. They argue that they are not targeting shipping randomly or recklessly but instead trying to impede Israel’s war re-supply efforts (this claim is disputed by shipping firms, Israel, the US, UK and various ship-flagging states, but the exact provenance of cargoes is not subject to independent verification). They claim that their actions are justified under international conventions designed to prevent genocide, specifically Article One of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (given the wholesale slaughter of Palestinian civilians in Gaza since October 7) and point to UN statements supporting the claim that what Israel is doing in Gaza and the West Bank, if not a “complete” genocide, certainly has the look and feel of ethnic cleansing. The South Africa application to the International Court of Justice charging Israel with genocide in Gaza, now supported by Turkey, Malaysia, Jordan, Bolivia, the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and hundreds of civil rights organisations around the world, is also being used by the Houthi rebel regime (and alternate sovereign) in Yemen as justification for their attacks.

In essence, what has been set up here is a moral-ethical dilemma in the form of a clash of international principles–guaranteeing freedom of navigation, on the one hand, or upholding the duty to protect against genocide on the other.

Needless to say, geopolitics colours all approaches to the conundrum. The Houthis (who are Shia) are clients of Iran (home to Shia Islam), who are also patrons of anti-Israel actors such as the Shia Alawite regime in Syria, Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon and numerous Iraqi Shiite militias. Iran (and through it its various regional clients and proxies), has strong military ties to Russia and the PRC (for example remember that Russia is using Iranian-made attack drones in the Ukraine). For their part, the NATO alliance and its partners are all major intelligence partners of Israel, as is Bahrain. So the confrontation in the Red Sea may not be so much about the moral-ethical obligations in defending freedom of navigation or resisting genocide per se, but instead is part of larger balance-of-power jousting in which the principles are extra-regional but the agents are in the Middle East.

New Zealand has already chosen a rhetorical side based, presumably, on its support for the principles of freedom of navigation and its rejection of the argument that the Houthis are doing the little that they can to resist genocide in Gaza. Should NZ send a warship to join the CTF-153 naval picket fence protecting commercial ships running the gauntlet at Bad-el-Mandeb, then it will have further staked its position on the side of its Western security partners as well as put its sailors in harm’s way. Some will say that it has placed more value on containers than the lives of Gazan children.

That may be a pragmatic decision based on sincere belief in the “freedom of the seas” principle, disbelief in the Houthi’s sincerity when it comes to resisting genocide (or the argument itself), concern about Iranian machinations and the presence of Russia and the PRC in the regional balance of power contest, indirect support for Israel or simply paying, as former PM John Key once said, “the price for being in the club.” Whatever the reason or combination thereof, it appears to the neutral eye that once again NZ has put facilitation of trade ahead of upholding universal human rights in its foreign policy calculations.

Perhaps the best way to characterise this approach is to call it a matter of prioritising conflicting principles in strategically pragmatic ways. Whether that puts NZ on the right side of history given the larger context at play remains to be seen.

11 thoughts on “About the Houthi Red Sea blockage.

  1. And it all started with Cold War petro-politics.

    When Mossadegh was elected Iran’s PM in the early 1950s, he nationalised the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now BP) because most of the profits were going to London. London took the case to the ICJ & lost, so it quietly asked MI6 & CIA to engineer his downfall in 1953. Namely, Mossadegh was basically smeared as a Soviet lackey when he was nothing of the sort – in fact he may have been no more socialist than Clement Attlee or Kemal Ataturk.

    The next 2.5 decades would breed the conditions for the fundy loons behind the Ayatollah Revolution, who remain in power & won’t go quietly. 60 years after the coup, the CIA admitted that deposing Mossadegh was one of its biggest mistakes.

    What could have been, indeed.

  2. I really can’t see this as anything more then rhetorical given the number of ships we have tied up alongside due to lack of crew at the moment. Making rhetorical statements costs nothing as NZ gave up caring about freedom of self-determination a long time ago. (I wonder what Phillip Mehrtens thinks about this.)

    While I do support the re-establishment of a North Yemeni state, and therefore the Houthis in the short term, they are the only govt out there that I would call truly anti-Semitic. They are not exactly engendering sympathy with these actions, except among their own populace (as a distraction).

  3. Hola Pablo

    Just cherry picking as usual

    Indonesia’s decision not to participate in the coalition may be due to the destruction of the
    Indonesian hospital in the Gaza Strip by the IDF

    The implications for the NZ economy due to longer transit times of cargo ships around Cape Horn remains to be seen. A greater interdependence on Asia perhaps ?

  4. Hola Eduardo,

    Yes, that may have been a specific reason for Indonesia, but I was trying to make some broad observations about decision-making rationales rather than offer specific criteria for any one country (other than some elaboration on Bahrain).

    I do not know the volume of NZ exports and imports that pass through the Red Sea so cannot comment on the specific impact the blockage may have on them. But if they are transhipped through hubs like Singapore or Australian ports, then the impact could be substantial. At a minimum it gives the NACT1st coalition reason to re-engage Asian markets in a more vigorous way although whether that is realistic or possible is a different matter.

  5. Hello Pablo, thank you for continuing to hold this problematic region in the spotlight.
    I saw the comment from Collins re the shipping, and immediately thought, like your correspondent above, ‘talk is cheap’. And that is what this govt is good at, so far. Will they send a ship? I will be surprised. They apparently cannot not afford it, financially or personnel-wise.
    But with this and your previous recent post about the Israel-Gaza war, it engenders nothing in me but depression. The whole of the middle East is such a complicated situation, so many factions, political and terrorist-type. I sometimes think if the whole area is consumed in some kind of conflagration, then that will settle it; and force the re-balancing and readjustments required to make the world a more stable place, for all people. Where that leaves us in NZ, I just do not know; but I suspect whatever ‘stuff’ comes through the Suez is not essential anyway. NZ could support itself with the essentials of life if we needed to – food, water. Medicines might be an issue. No doubt there are more I cannot think of at present.
    Whatever, 2024 only brings uncertainty to mind for me atm. Only our beautiful weather, and some happy-fam times these past few weeks make me feel more optimistic.
    Thank goodness we are not so close to all this, at least physically.
    Funny how it was often shown as the centre of the world on old maps.
    Nothing changes.
    You said that too ;-)

    Kind regards.

  6. … ‘cannot afford it’ was what I meant to say. I’m sure you all knew.
    But oh dear! My editing is slipping …


  7. No problem Barbara. The message came through. As it turns out neither of the RNZN frigates are available for picket duty in the Red Sea. The Te Mana just returned to port after an extended deployment and is scheduled for maintenance, and the Te Kaha has just been released from a two year systems upgrade and is undergoing sea trials prior to being restored to operational status. Since there is no point in sending non-combat ships or smaller patrol vessels to undertake distant picket duties, NZ’s contribution to the anti-Houthi coalition is more symbolic and rhetorical than substantive and real. You might find interesting some of the commentary generated by this piece over on Twitter/X. You can find it by looking up 36th_Parallel and following the threads. Cheers!

  8. Thanks KR,

    I seen a marked deterioration of the platform content since the neo-fascist Akricaaner took over, but was unsure how to transfer out without losing ten years+ of 36P tweets.

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