international analysis and commentary

The US, Yemen, and the Houthi challenge in the Gulf


Since late 2023, Houthi attacks against commercial vessels and navies from territories in northwestern Yemen under their control have been jeopardizing maritime security in the Red Sea, Bab el-Mandeb and the Gulf of Aden. This regional threat highlights the mistakes of US foreign policy in Yemen since the 2000s, and today’s differences between Washington, EU allies and Gulf monarchies partners in coping with the crisis, despite maritime security being a collective interest.

Houthi warriors meet at the end of a military training in Yemen


2000-2024: US foreign policy in Yemen

In the last twenty years, two mistakes in perspective marked US foreign policy in Yemen. First, it focused on countering Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula after the USS Cole (2000) and the 9/11 (2001) attacks: These jihadi attacks respectively occurred in, or were related to, Yemen. Meanwhile, the Houthis were long considered only local insurgents. This approach was dominant, despite the Houthis frequently targeting, in 2016-2022, the territories of Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser extent, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) with missiles and drones, comprising Saudi and Emirati maritime targets in the Red Sea.

Second, the US framed political-military developments in Yemen through Saudi Arabia’s lens. As a result, Washington considered the Houthis as Iranian proxies since the beginning of the Saudi military intervention in Yemen in 2015. However, the Houthis tightened military relations with Iran only after the Saudi intervention, with Tehran systematically providing weapons to the Yemeni armed group. In shaping policy towards Yemen, the US should consider, instead, that the Houthis are not Iranian creations, or proxies, but allies of the Islamic Republic with their own national agenda. Iran has been decisive for weapons provision and the improvement of asymmetric capabilities, but it does not exercise complete control over decision-making. Therefore, the US cannot rely upon the idea that strengthening the pressure on Iran will automatically push the Houthis to refrain from attacks.


Read also: The Saudi-Iranian rapprochement: a starting point with incentives and risks


The US, the UK, the EU and the Red Sea crisis: parallel goals

Facing the Red Sea crisis, the Biden presidency is adopting an incremental, “step-by-step” approach to reduce risks of further escalation in the Middle East. The multinational naval mission “Prosperity Guardian”, a US-led defensive operation launched in mid-December 2023 with, among others, the UK, Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, Greece, Denmark and Bahrain, has not been enough to restore freedom of navigation in the Red Sea waterway. For this reason, the US has also opted since January 11, 2024, for raids against military sites in Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen, sometimes together with the UK. The US seems caught into an uncomfortable dilemma: working to restore maritime security but without risking an uncontrolled escalation in the Middle East. The possibility of the US remaining trapped in a long-term low intensity conflict in the Red Sea is real.


Read also: The Red Sea as a core business for the EU


Furthermore, not only have Western allies organized parallel naval missions, “Prosperity Guardian” and “Aspides” (two parallel missions also operate in the Hormuz Strait-Gulf of Oman since 2019), but they also have different goals. In fact, the US-UK aim to tackle the crisis by undermining the Houthis’ offensive capabilities, while the EU seems exclusively interested in mitigating the commercial threat.


The GCC states’ nuanced reactions

Meanwhile, the Gulf monarchies display nuanced perspectives on how to face the Houthi threat against international shipping. Bahrain, which hosts the US Fifth Fleet and is the only Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) state that still does not have diplomatic relations with Iran, joined “Prosperity Guardian” and provided support to US-UK airstrikes. Saudi Arabia expressed great concern about US-UK raids and still prioritizes the diplomatic way with the Houthis to reach a bilateral ceasefire in Yemen. Conversely, the UAE defined the Houthi attacks against commercial vessels as “unacceptable”, implicitly stating that, for Abu Dhabi, restoring safe waterways comes first. Qatar spoke against the use of military force to ensure freedom of navigation and Oman publicly condemned the US-UK raids.

Different perspectives and goals on how to cope with the Red Sea crisis and, most of all, on what to do with the Houthis, play only into the Houthis’ hands. The Yemeni armed movement has already started to play one ally against the other, for instance stating they are not going to attack neighboring Gulf monarchies (although they did just that until 2022), presumably to create a rift between the GCC states and the US. They are also conveying that they would stop the Red Sea attacks in the case of a ceasefire in Gaza. However, this should not be taken for granted, as the armed group is clearly exploiting the Israel-Hamas war to advance its own agenda, in partial coordination with Iran. In the future, the Houthis could resume maritime attacks to support their domestic goals, and this scenario cannot be ruled out.


Building a Western-GCC common ground policy

A protracted low-intensity conflict in the Red Sea would not be a sustainable option for the GCC states either, given their commitment to post-oil diversification plans which needs regional stability and also freedom of navigation around the Arabian Peninsula in order to succeed, also attracting international investors. A destabilized  scenario would further expose instead US targets in the Gulf to the possibility of Houthi attacks, with regard to Bahrain and the UAE. It is likely that Saudi Arabia will work to prolong the bilateral talks with the Houthis as much as possible: Keeping the diplomatic path alive is for Riyadh the best way to insulate the kingdom from the attacks coming from the Houthis.

Now that Western allies and GCC partners share the same threat perception vis-Ă -vis the Houthi menace, political coordination is key. In this context, building a common policy between the US, the UK, the EU and the GCC states on how to deal with the Houthi issue should be a priority to address the medium to long-term stabilization of the Red Sea area.

Restoring freedom of navigation in the Red Sea waterway depends on a viable solution to the Gaza war and, at the same time, on a comprehensive ceasefire in Yemen. Yemen’s stabilization prospects become even more uncertain due to the Houthi maritime offensive. Therefore, the US dilemma on the Red Sea crisis is likely here to stay. In any case, stronger policy coordination among the US, the UK, the EU and the GCC states is crucial to maritime security – as well as for being well equipped before all possible scenarios.