Houthis Threaten to Attack the Mediterranean

A picture of a cargo ship off the coast of Yemen.

In a recent statement, Houthi rebels vowed to extend the reach of their attacks on vessels headed to Israel. Whereas before, they focused on cargo ships heading to the Suez Canal through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, they now intend to attack vessels in the Eastern Mediterranean.

At Auba, we decided to take a closer look at these threats and their likelihood of becoming a true source of supply chain disruptions. But before, it is important to provide context on the current situation in the Red Sea.

For over six months now, Houthi rebels have been the major source of disruptions to the world of supply chains. Ever since November 19th, the rebel group backed by Iranian forces has engaged in a number of strategic attacks against commercial vessels headed across the Red Sea. In total, Houthis have attacked 82 vessels in the Red Sea with a clear focus on commercial ships.

Their strategy and reasoning is straightforward: to disrupt the Israeli state as it wages a war with Palestine. As a member of the “Axis of Resistance”—an assortment of Iran-backed rebel groups—, the Houthis seek to support Palestine’s Hamas in the conflict against Israel by taegetting vessels headed to the territory while ignoring Chinese and Russian crews. Thus, Houthis created a strategic response, cutting Israel from global trade but hurting the entire global economy in turn.

The recent statements from Houthi rebels came two days before Israeli forces began an offensive in the Palestinian city of Rafah, further escalating military tensions in the region. 

Thus far, the Houthis seem to have succeeded in their attacks—even though they have been targeted by a number of air strikes from the US, UK, and other allied forces. Recently, in Auba, we estimated that roughly 4.4% of maritime traffic in key choke points around the world concentrates on the areas targeted by Houthi rebels. And their strategic position along the Strait of Bab el-mandeb seems to be paying off. Between January 2023 and May 2024, the number of vessels in the Red Sea dropped from over 100 a day, to barely above 40

Number of Vessels in the Red Sea

A line graph showing the number of vessels at sea in the Mediterranean sea between 2023 and 2024.
(Data from the Kiel Institute for the World Economy)

Therefore, the real question is whether Houthis could expand their reach even further to disrupt trade in other neighboring ports and zones of interest. Or, as they claim, to reach the Eastern Mediterranean Sea.

Currently, Houthi rebels have engaged in a number of strategies from raiding vessels with smaller boats to using helicopters to capture commercial ships. Although, by and large, the most common Houthi strategy has been to use Iranian-made missiles in their attacks.

It is currently known that Houthi rebels have missiles with up to 1,000 km in range, allowing them to attack vessels around the Red Sea and Strait of Bab el-Mandeb without much effort. Even their most distant attacks in the Gulf of Aden, fall within a 1,000 km range from the Houthi capital of Sana’a. This range, however, would be incapable of reaching the Mediterranean and, in fact, falls short from reaching the Suez Canal itself, as we plotted in the map below.

Recently, however, Al Jazeera has estimated that Houthi’s could be in possession of missiles with an expanded range of 2,500 km. This would, indeed, expand the range of Houthi attacks to the very beginning of the Eastern Mediterranean, as we also plotted in the map below:

Current Range of Houthi Missiles

A map of the world outlining the current range of attack for Houthi missiles both as it is currently known and also its suspected real range.
(Data from the Washington Institute and Al Jazeera)

It is unclear why Houthi’s have failed to attack beyond their “known range” of capabilities. It could well be the case that Houthi rebels lack the longer range missiles some outlets suspect or, if they do have them, they could be few in number. That is, Houthi rebels could be waiting for a target of significant value to enter their range.

However, even then, it is worth noting how small of a segment of the Mediterranean Houthi rebels could even reach. In fact, only pots in Turkey and Egypt would be impacted by the attacks—as well as Israel and other Middle Eastern nations. Thus, it is unlikely that further attacks in the Eastern Mediterranean given current Houthi capabilities could disrupt trade beyond what is currently the case.

The above doesn’t imply that Houthi’s are unlikely to disrupt trade further. CUrrently, we have no signals that their attacks will come to an end anytime soon. What it does suggest, in turn, is that Houthi military capabilities might be less likely to disrupt trade in the Mediterranean than Houthis themselves would like to admit.