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How far is peace in Red Sea?

Syed Fattahul Alim | February 13, 2024 00:00:00

It is about a week short of three months that the Iran-backed Houthi fighters of Yemen, the Ansar Allah, started to block movement of commercial ships in the Red Sea. How has the global maritime trade been faring since? Reports say 8.8 million barrels of oil and petroleum products per day, which is about 12 per cent of the world's maritime oil trade, transited through Egypt's Suez Canal during the first half of 2023. And it is through the Red Sea after crossing the choke point of Bab el-Mandeb Strait-a channel 20 miles across with a small rocky island off the southwest coast of Yemen dividing it-that any ship can reach Suez Canal on its way to the Mediterranean Sea.

But now the strait is being guarded by the Houthi rebels who won't allow any commercial vessel to pass through if it is bound for Israel or suspected of carrying any merchandise for Israel. Obviously, the world powers, especially the US who along with the UK, in order to safeguard 'freedom of navigation' has been carrying out air strikes against Houthi military installations to destroy Houthi power. But so far the joint US-UK military campaign against the Houthis does not seem to have worked as expected. Rather it made matters worse.The free flow of merchant traffic through the Red Sea has not been ensured. As a result, most of the container ships that previously used the Red Sea route are now rerouting via the Cape of Good Hope. And it has increased the transport cost per ship by USD 1 million, according to CNN. Now, consider that from 10 to 15 per cent of the world's trade is carried out through this maritime route. And much of the trade is energy-related. However, Houthis have not so far hit any oil-carrying ship. That may be due to the fact that most of the oil tankers carry oil from the Gulf countries who are Arabs like the Houthis. But that is cold comfort for many major oil traders. For instance, the giants in this field like the British Petroleum (BP), Shell plc and the world's largest commodity shipper, Trafigura of Singapore, have stopped using the Red Sea route.

Notwithstanding the colossal loss suffered by the maritime trade, thanks to the Red Sea stalemate, many are trying to find solace by comparing present situation with what used to be during the Covid-19 pandemic. But this is a wrong type of comparison. Because pandemic-inflicted disruption of supply chain was beyond human control. But the present crisis of the maritime trade caused by the Houthis is not. Maersk, a Danish shipping and logistics behemoth, warned that supply chain disruption on such a scale may continue for a year. That means there is no immediate solution to the Red Sea crisis in sight despite the action being taken by the US and its allies against Houthis. But the US ought to know better than to resolve a crisis of this kind through war.The condition that the Houthis placed to allow commercial vessels through the Red Sea was to stop the ongoing genocidal war against the civilian population in the Gaza strip of Palestine. And it is not just the Houthis, the entire world wants it. So, had the US, without whose support Israel cannot continue this war for a day, willed, the ongoing madness in Gaza would stop forthwith. And that is the road to peace in the Red Sea.

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