Solving the Houthi Threat to Freedom of Navigation

Gravely Conducts Strikes in the Red Sea

The United States is engaged in its first major naval combat since World War II, according to the commander overseeing U.S. naval forces in the Middle East. But instead of pitting the world’s major powers against each other, this battle is between a superpower and an isolated armed group controlling one of the poorest, most resource-deprived areas on Earth.

Houthi attacks on maritime shipping in the Red Sea are undermining freedom of navigation as an international norm, jeopardizing a principle that has underpinned the international system and global economy for decades. The fact that the Houthi attacks have faded from the news cycle even while attacks persist and major shippers continue to boycott the Red Sea is evidence that a “new normal” has set in, where freedom of navigation is no longer assumed.

This threat is unlikely to go away soon. The Houthis have many reasons to continue attacks in the Red Sea and potentially beyond even after a ceasefire takes hold in Gaza, and the international response to date has proven insufficient to deter them. A variety of non-state, rogue state, and other revisionist actors are also taking note of how effectively Houthi attacks have disrupted commerce.

The Houthi attacks and the international response are instructive, demonstrating the difficulty of mobilizing a unified front in the current geopolitical environment, even to address immediate threats to basic global goods. But they also underscore that so-called “negative peace” is not a real solution to violent conflict. It is still possible to broker a more enduring solution to the Houthi threat to freedom of navigation, thereby sending a positive signal about the resilience of the international system. A U.N.-led political process in Yemen provides the best path for addressing the factors inside Yemen motivating the Houthi attacks but that must be coupled with a unified, principled U.N. Security Council posture on the attacks. Yemen provides a unique opportunity to demonstrate Security Council unity and ability to act, if Gulf countries are willing and able to demonstrate leadership behind the scenes.



What the International Response Says About the Current Geopolitical Environment

The difficulty mobilizing a strong, united international response to this threat to freedom of navigation is cause for concern. The countries most impacted by the Houthi attacks in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe have been hesitant to join the U.S.-led maritime coalition in the Red Sea, Operation Prosperity Guardian, and only in part due to sensitivities over Gaza. Despite facing both direct attacks and indirect economic consequences, China has declined to act. While hardly surprising given the status of U.S.-Chinese bilateral relations, it underscores that we are now in a world where the major powers are unwilling to work together to defend global goods, even when unrelated to major-power competition.

Anti-internationalist trends may be making it more difficult to mobilize a unified approach even among U.S. allies in Europe. European publics and the politicians they support are more skeptical about ceding control or resources to international bodies, which may have motivated decisions by major players like France to keep naval resources in the Red Sea under national command. The result has been a patchwork of efforts with the vast majority of work done by the United States alone. And while that patchwork has successfully intercepted many Houthi attacks, it has been insufficient to reassure commercial actors and restore major shipping activity in the Red Sea.

Why a Gaza Ceasefire May Not Be Enough

Regional de-escalation of some sort is likely necessary to pause Houthi attacks in the near term, given genuine Houthi ideological motivations and the need for them to publicly demonstrate that their attacks secured some benefit for Palestinians. However, a Gaza ceasefire in isolation is not sufficient to address the Houthi threat to freedom of navigation.

There is wide consensus among Yemen experts that Houthi attacks are driven only in part by their support for Palestinians. A more powerful motivation for Houthi attacks is the need to distract from growing domestic dissent over Houthi governance since the April 2022 Yemen truce, and to bolster the Houthi’s position both inside Yemen and within the region.

Yemen is in a transitional phase, what many Yemenis have called “no war, no peace.” The truce triggered a transition from a high-intensity civil and regional war to quiet talks around a political process. This is an uncomfortable limbo for the Houthis, who have only governed during wartime and lack access to Yemen’s most valuable natural resources, namely oil and gas. U.N. estimates place the Houthis annual revenues at $1.8 billion – hardly enough to manage the more than 25 million Yemenis under their control. The Houthis spent years and countless lives trying to capture Yemen’s oil and gas fields, to no avail. Maritime attacks provide a powerful new tool to help the Houthi’s cement their control.

The Houthis may still frame attacks on shipping in the context of Gaza. It’s a simple, successful narrative and the path towards a solution in Gaza is a long and rocky one, at best. Even if the parties reach a ceasefire tomorrow, the Houthis could justify their attacks by protesting a continued Israeli security presence in Gaza or demanding guarantees of a Palestinian state, for example.

Houthi statements have left plenty of space for continued attacks: Houthi leaders have said their attacks will continue until aggression in Gaza ceases, the Gaza siege is lifted, and the situation is completely resolved. In Yemen, the Houthis have defined siege as the lack of full, internationally recognized Houthi control over Yemen’s ports of entry, even if basic goods enter unimpeded. By this definition, Gaza will likely be under siege for the foreseeable future.

The Way Forward

Prior to Oct. 7, the Houthis were pursuing a U.N.-backed political process that would grant them access to additional economic resources and likely eventually formalize Houthi control in northern Yemen. Amid Houthi attacks impacting over a quarter of all U.N. member states, the future of this process is unclear.

With the political process stalled, the Houthis may renew their attempts to seize Yemen’s oil and gas resources by force, leveraging the momentum created by their maritime attacks. The Houthis are already using the Red Sea attacks to launch significant conscription efforts, including of children. The Houthis may also exploit Saudi and Emirati anxieties about renewed Houthi attacks on their territories. Such attacks could open a major new front in the broader Middle East conflict. In particular, the Houthis could exploit these anxieties to ensure the Saudis and Emiratis do not provide their Yemeni allies the close air support that played an important role in repelling past Houthi offensives on the oil and gas fields. While the Houthis may be able to capture those fields, the export infrastructure lies further south, in the heartland of former South Yemen, where opposition against the Houthis is the strongest and the United Arab Emirates has significant equities, opening the door for a new round of sustained conflict that could spread within the Gulf. In this way, a successful Houthi offensive would remove one of the few remaining constraints on Houthi power without providing a durable solution to the country’s instability, fostering precisely the kind of chaotic conditions likely to perpetuate Houthi attacks on maritime shipping.

While some analysts have advocated for U.S. support for an offensive against the Houthis, the conditions for such an offensive are even less conducive than in the past five years, when Saudi and Emirati-backed offensives repeatedly failed to make meaningful progress. The last significant battlefield progress against the Houthis occurred in 2018, when the Houthis were substantially weaker and when the United Arab Emirates was willing to mobilize a significant Emirati troop presence on the ground, including a Emirati-led amphibious assault. It is difficult to imagine the United States or regional actors providing such support now.

Unfortunately, the problematic assumption that a Gaza ceasefire in isolation can address the Houthi maritime threat undermines efforts to chart a more durable solution. In addition to causing diplomats to de-prioritize dedicated efforts in Yemen, stark disagreements on Gaza combined with skepticism about the path forward there incentivizes both regional actors and Russia and China to pursue individual arrangements that only further empower the Houthis. U.S. policymakers also have a tendency to view Yemen through the lens of proximate foreign policy issues: first counterterrorism, then Iran, then Saudi Arabia, and now Gaza. This tendency has repeatedly generated only partial solutions that invariably breed new threats.

A Chance to Show the International System Still Works

There is an alternative to a failed state scenario. While imperfect, a U.N.-backed political process provides the most significant form of international leverage over the Houthis. If executed effectively, it has the potential to enforce Houthi compromise with other Yemeni political actors. Most importantly, it could provide the conditions necessary for an economic recovery that fosters economic cooperation with Yemen’s wealthy neighbors. Such a recovery process would provide powerful incentives discouraging renewed Houthi use of force in the region.

But a political process can only realize this potential if it is coupled with a unified, principled international stance on Houthi attacks on maritime shipping. Absent this, the Houthis could use the threat of attacks to extract progressively greater concessions, simultaneously isolating Yemen and depriving it of the international economic support necessary for recovery. For this to work, the entire U.N. Security Council would need to quietly but clearly articulate red lines for Houthi attacks and be willing to uphold them. This means inflicting meaningful consequences if the Houthis fail to uphold their commitments. A political process will expand the levers available to the Security Council, including through their ability to set terms for lifting the Chapter VII provisions against the Houthis. A political process that gradually legitimizes the Houthis is understandably unattractive to many U.S. policymakers, but it also presents the most viable path for addressing the underlying factors that triggered the Houthi attacks and shifting incentives away from continued use of force.

A unified Security Council posture on the Houthi attacks may seem unattainable in the current geopolitical environment, especially given Houthi attempts to reassure China and Russia and thereby divide the Security Council. But these reassurances have fallen somewhat flat given that Russian and Chinese-affiliated ships have both come under Houthi attack, and the inevitable economic impacts of Houthi maritime attacks on China. More importantly, Yemen has been a rare example of relative Security Council unity in the past. It was one of the few cases where the United Nations has been able to adopt new sanctions in recent years, even after Russia’s war on Ukraine inflamed divisions in the Security Council on the issue. Key to this unity has been the willingness of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to help corral Chinese and Russian cooperation and a consensus that continued conflict in the Arab Gulf is counterproductive. Neither China nor Russia has major equities in Yemen, unlike other regional hotspots like Syria and Libya. But China and Russia both rely heavily on their relationships with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, whose equities in Yemen are significant. As a result, China and Russia have repeatedly prioritized requests from the Saudis and Emiratis related to Yemen over their tensions with the United States in the Security Council, or their hesitancy over sanctions. The fact that the Security Council was able to pass a resolution condemning the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea in January despite strong Council disagreement on the broader situation in the Middle East is itself evidence of this relative unity. While Russia and China abstained on the resolution, they declined to veto it, thereby allowing it to go forward. This decision was likely motivated by their economic equities in the Red Sea, combined with quiet diplomatic engagement from regional actors.

A stronger, unified Security Council approach to the Houthi attacks would need to begin with Saudi Arabia, with support from the Emiratis. Saudi Arabia’s cautious public stance on the attacks is understandable given the sensitivities of the situation in Gaza. But Saudi Arabia understands that the Houthi maritime threat is not limited to the current Gaza conflict. Saudi Arabia must make it clear to the Houthis that they will not engage in a side deal that jeopardizes the U.N.-led political process or enables the Houthis to seize Yemen’s oil and gas fields. This approach is ultimately in Saudi Arabia’s interest, so that they do not find themselves footing the entire bill for what are sure to become escalating Houthi demands. Saudi Arabia must then work closely with Security Council members to chart a consensus posture on the Houthi maritime attacks, including how that posture aligns with a U.N.-led political process. If Saudi Arabia were to present the Russians and the Chinese with such a proposal — including previously agreed consequences for Houthi violations — it would be difficult for them to disagree, and the Security Council could minimize the bartering and uncertainty that typically delays or impedes its ability to actually deploy consequences. All of this can be done behind closed doors to maximize diplomatic space. Such a proposal would provide a unifying vision for the path forward in Yemen, even if progress in the short term requires further regional de-escalation.

In addition to providing a more durable solution to the Houthi threat to freedom of navigation, this approach would send a positive message about the integrity of the international system. If major powers are still capable of coming together to uphold global goods, Yemen provides a compelling case for doing so.



Allison Minor is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. She recently served as the deputy U.S. special envoy for Yemen and previously worked at the National Security Council, Development Finance Corporation, and U.S. Agency for International Development. Her research focuses on conflict prevention and the Middle East. The views and opinions in this article are the author’s only and do not represent those of the U.S. government.

Image: Petty Officer 1st Class Jonathan Word