Yemen relies heavily on sea trade to move goods in and out

Dubai:The continuing war in Yemen is damaging the regional commercial maritime industry, with the country becoming increasingly riskier to sail to as the violence escalates.

Yemeni port cities have witnessed street-by-street warfare as the Saudi -led coalition fights Al Houthi militants in an effort to restore the international recognised government.

“A lot of opportunities to trade in Yemen have been denied to the commercial shipping industry because the war is ongoing,” Ian Millen, Chief Operating Officer at Dryad Maritime, an international monitoring organization, told Gulf News by phone from London on Friday.

International shipping lines started pulling back from Yemen earlier this year as fighting in the country escalated. And for those still willing to sail to Yemen face having their vessels boarded and inspected by the coalition, which has enforced a blockade over Al Houthi-controlled ports.

“In terms of running proper maritime trade through the area that will cause problems,” Millen said.


Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the world, relies heavily on sea trade to move goods in and out of the country. But the war and blockade have unnerved seafarers and so the number of ships calling at Yemeni ports “has surely been heavily affected,” Peter Sand, Chief Shipping Analyst at BIMCO, the largest global shipping association, said by email.

But ships sailing past Yemen have not been affected.

“It seems as if the ships sailing through the Gulf of Aden, in the guarded corridor [have] not been affected by the fighting at all. It has been contained on shore — not disrupting the international shipping transits in the area,” he said.

Yemen sits along a vital maritime corridor, the Bab Al Mandab strait, and subsequently some of the busiest maritime routes in the world. Bab Al Mandab, just 29 kilometres at its narrowest point, connects the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. The Bab Al Mandab, in the Horn of Africa, separating the Arabian Peninsula and east Africa, is extremely important to global economy. Most ships passing through Bab Al Mandab are either coming from or going to Egypt’s Suez Canal, through which around 8 per cent of the world’s trade passes each year and generates around $5 billion (Dh18.3 billion) a year for the Egyptian economy. The Egyptian government expects to Suez Canal revenue to increase to $13.2 billion by 2023. It is also important for the Gulf states with about 4 per cent of the global oil supply passing through the strait.

Last week, the Yemeni pro-government forces, backed by the coalition, retook coastal cities along the Bab Al Mandab from Al Houthis. Saudi Arabia and Egypt were both worried Al Houthis, who are supported by Iran, could block the strait and disrupt Red Sea trade. Iran has threatened in the past to block the Strait of Hormuz, the only way in or out of the Arabian Gulf, which a fifth of global oil supply passes through each day.

“When we started to see the escalation in military activity within the country, there were concerns about a blockade or restriction of shipping through the Bab Al Mandab but that’s not what happened. Trade [has] very much continued to flow through this area,” London-based Tim Hart, maritime manager at Control Risks, said by phone.

A closure of Bab Al Mandab would significantly disrupt trade, forcing shipping liners to sail around South and West Africa to get from the Indian Ocean to Europe — a substantially longer journey. It would also be damaging for the Gulf economies, including the UAE, at a time when oil revenues are down. The Gulf states have invested in building major shipping container ports including in Doha, Abu Dhabi, and Dubai, which has the region’s largest port, and any disruption in maritime trade would have an impact.

But Richard Dalton, a former UK ambassador to Iran and an associate fellow at the UK think-tank Chatham House, said it was unlikely Al Houthis — or the Iranians — would have ever closed the strait.

“Basically, Al Houthis and Iran were never a serious threat to rights of passage through the strait and the Saudi coalition’s control changes nothing,” he said by email.

Hart agrees.

“It’s not something which either groups involved in the conflict have shown an intent to want to disrupt nor do groups have an interest in wanting to disrupt the shipping operations through that area of passage,” he said but noted that regional countries “would not be able to tolerate” its closure.

The battle between Al Houthis and the coalition for the coastal cities has also raised new concerns for the maritime shipping industry. Millen said that when the coalition took the cities Al Houthis reportedly fired across the sea at coalition navy vessels supporting the operation.

A further escalation in violence, particular over the seas, could lead to some companies deciding to avoid sailing in the seas next to Yemen, he said.