The UK has called on the Houthi movement in Yemen to cease its attacks on shipping transiting the Bab el Mandeb into the Red Sea, with dozens of drones and anti-ship missiles launched in recent weeks.

Delivering a speech to the UN Security Council on 3 January 2024, UK Ambassador James Kariuki stated that the “illegal and unjustified” attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea could “cease… immediately”.

Issuing a warning, Kariuki said that the UK “will not hesitate to take action to deter threats to freedom of navigation in the Red Sea”.

On 2 January 2024, the US Central Command (CENTCOM) issued a statement detailing that at approximately 9:30pm Sana’a time, Iranian-backed Houthis fired “two anti-ship ballistic missiles” from within Houthi controlled areas in Yemen into the Southern Red Sea.

According to CENTCOM, “multiple” commercial ships in the area reported the impact of the missiles into the Red Sea, with no damage reported. The incident was the 24th attack against merchant shipping in the southern Red Sea since 19 November 2023.

A grouping of 11 countries, comprising the UK and US plus Australia, Bahrain, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, and New Zealand issued a warning to the Houthis against further maritime attacks.

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By GlobalData

Iran utilising Houthi proxy

Backed by Iran, the Houthis began their campaign of attacks on Red Sea shipping following the outbreak of conflict between Israel and Hamas in October 2023, pledging support for Hamas and announcing its intention to attack Israel-linked shipping transiting the Red Sea and Bab el Mandeb.

In response, the US and UK have sent warships into the Red Sea to deter attacks and protect shipping and have shot down a number of missiles and drones fired by the Houthis. Iran has also dispatched naval forces to the Red Sea, further raising tensions.

However, with attacks continuing, there are fears that the situation could escalate to see retaliatory strikes carried out by Western forces on Houthi sites in Yemen.

Such strikes could be carried out by US naval forces operating in the region, which are equipped with and capable of firing Tomahawk land attack cruise missiles. The UK warship sent to the Red Sea, HMS Diamond, is a Type 45 air defence destroyer and has no viable land attack capability, other than through its main 4.5-inch gun, which is unlikely to be utilised.

The UK has deployed HMS Diamond (foreground) into the Red Sea to help deter attacks by the Houthis. Credit: UK MoD/Crown copyright

Notably, the Gulf states of Qatar, the UAE, and Oman, which host US and UK air assets that could in theory be used for strikes in Yemen, did not join the grouping of nations that issued the warning to the Houthis, making it unlikely that aircraft hosted in the three GCC states would be utilised.

The signing of Bahrain could be significant, with the tiny Gulf state hosting the US Navy 5th Fleet from Mina Salman in the capital Manama. The US 5th Fleet has a dedicated carrier strike group (CSG) attached at all times, with the USS Dwight D Eisenhower CSG arriving in the Middle East in November 2023.