War in Yemen Could Affect Gas Prices in America, Europe
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Prices at American gas pumps could rise further as Iran, working through its Yemeni proxy, reignites tensions at one of the world’s most sensitive maritime passages.
A spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen said Saturday that Yemen’s second largest port, Hodeidah, controlled by the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, is now a military base. Therefore, Brigadier General Turki al-Malki stressed, Hodeidah and a smaller Houthi-held port are now legitimate military targets for the coalition.
This latest escalation in the war raging since late 2014 erupted January 3, when Houthi forces based in Hodeidah seized a United Arab Emirates-flagged ship, the Rwabee. The Houthis released a video alleging the vessel was carrying illicit arms. A Saudi spokesman contended it was loaded with medical equipment.
Either way, Tehran didn’t work too hard to conceal the Houthi operation’s connection to the anniversary of the January 3, 2020, assassination of General Qassem Soleimani. In addition to the ship seizure, the Islamic Republic marked this year’s anniversary with renewed threats against President Trump and his then state secretary, Michael Pompeo, as well as attacks on American bases in Iraq and a hacking of an Israeli press site.
Before he was killed, Soleimani was responsible for creating a network of militant proxies across the Mideast, bolstering Hezbollah’s military capabilities in Lebanon, securing Bashar al-Assad’s hold on power in Syria, backing anti-American militias in Iraq, and shipping arms and funds to Hamas and other Gaza-based terror groups.
Meanwhile, turning Yemen’s Houthi militia into a thorn in the side of Saudi Arabia was one of Soleimani’s achievements in exporting the Iranian revolution to the region. The January 3 seizure of the Rwabee marks a major turning point in the long, cruel, and deadly Yemen civil war. “They’ve never done anything like that before,” says Jamal Benomar, who served as the United Nations representative in Yemen between 2011 and 2015.
Boarding and seizing a vessel on the high seas “shows they’re getting better and better in fighting their cause,” Mr. Benomar told me. “The Houthis I knew as a ragtag militia now emerge as a more belligerent, more powerful, and more sophisticated force, which is armed with drones and missiles thanks to Iranian technology and the ill-conceived Saudi military intervention that brought them closer to Iran.”
How, though, can an escalation of a civil war in one of the world’s poorest countries relate to price hikes at American gas stations? A look at the map discloses some answers. Yemen is situated at the southernmost entrance to the Red Sea, where a 16-mile-wide strait, Bab el Mandeb (“Gate of Tears”), connects the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean, shortening shipping routes to Europe and America from Asia and Africa.
Through the Red Sea’s northern point, the Suez Canal, goods have sailed freely for decades, making it one of the world’s busiest maritime lanes. Crucially, tankers carry some 3.3 million barrels of oil daily along Yemen’s coast on the way to Europe and America from the Gulf.
Last summer Iran was suspected of hijacking an Emirati-owned tanker in the Gulf of Oman. Now, with the Houthis’ seizure of the Rwabee, Iran signals it could extend to Yemen such efforts at controlling and manipulating global oil prices.
The Houthis might be a local Yemeni force with few real global aspirations. Yet the grueling civil war has also turned them into an Iranian catspaw. Their Tehran-inspired slogan — “Allah is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam” — is pasted on roadside billboards across the land and on flags waved atop speeding Toyota flatbed trucks.
Houthi statements on the seizure of the Rwabee praised the group’s intelligence capabilities, its ability to stun the Saudi-led coalition, and its military prowess inside Yemen. They also aimed at a more distant power, stating in one report that “this operation has military dimensions for the aggressor coalition, and a clear message to the Israeli enemy that any military action against Yemen means that Israeli naval vessels and bases where the regime trains mercenaries will be destroyed.”
Since its early stages, Yemen became a proxy war between powerful neighbors. It has devastated the waterless land, further impoverished its population, and killed nearly 400,000 people. In addition, Saudi targets, including population centers, are bombarded daily. Will the next casualty be European and American markets?
Image: An oil tanker docks at the port of Hodeidah, Yemen, October 17, 2019. Reuters/Abduljabbar Zeyad