Houthi Rebel Attacks in the Red Sea

The Houthis are an anti-Sunni Yemeni rebel group. Since November 2023, The Houthis have launched numerous missile and drone attacks on commercial Israeli ships in the Red Sea targeting as a response to the intensifying war in Gaza. The US has responded with self-defense strikes, which was met with mixed responses from the Middle East, Europe, and regional powers.

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Executive summary

The Houthis are an anti-Sunni Yemeni rebel group. Since November 2023, The Houthis have launched numerous missile and drone attacks on commercial Israeli ships in the Red Sea targeting as a response to the intensifying war in Gaza. The US has responded with self-defense strikes, which was met with mixed responses from the Middle East, Europe, and regional powers


The Houthis, a group of armed Zaydi Shiite Muslim combatants, have been fighting for control in Yemen’s Sunni-Muslim majority government since 2004.   

Since November 19th of last year, Houthi rebels have been launching attacks in the Red Sea, an inlet situated between Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, Israel, and Yemen. These attacks involve launching drones and missiles targeting international merchant ships passing through the Red Sea. In striking these Western ships, the rebels aim to show support for Palestinians. Yahya Saree, a military spokesman for the Houthis, has affirmed that the Houthis will continue to prevent Israeli navigation and those going to occupied Palestine until the siege of Gaza stops. Some say that these strikes on the Red Sea are intended to create economic hardship for Israel, pressuring Israel into a ceasefire

However, Houthi control of the Red Sea has caused trade delays. These delays have affected people in Yemen as well. According to Matthew Miller, the Spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State, Houthis have been attacking ships containing food that were headed to countries in need of humanitarian assistance, Yemen included. 

In response to Houthi attacks, on February 3rd, 2024, the United States and the United Kingdom, supported by Australia, Bahrain, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, and New Zealand, launched more than thirty strikes against Houthi targets spread out across Yemen. They targeted Houthi weapon storage facilities, missile launchers,radars, and other resources. This international group aims to de-escalate tensions, restore the free flow of goods in the area, and limit the power of the Houthi rebels. 

Internationally, Houthi control of the Red Sea has caused critical disruptions to global trade. Reportedly, 12% of trade passes through the Red Sea, but the strikes in the area have caused companies to reroute their ships. Many companies are taking a route that goes around the southern tip of the Cape Peninsula, at the “Cape of Good Hope.” This had made the sea passage journey longer and more expensive. If the Houthi presence in the Red Sea continues, it may put the global economy at risk.


The Houthis are a significant tribe that hails from Yemen's northeastern Saada region. They follow the Zaydi form of Shiism. Zaydis make up around 35% of Yemen's population. A Zaydi imamate controlled Yemen for 1,000 years before being deposed in 1962. Since then, the Zaydis, who have lost their political status, have battled to regain control and influence in Yemen. In the 1980s, the Houthi clan launched a campaign to resurrect Zaydi traditions, fearing state-funded Salafist preachers who had established a foothold in Houthi territory. Not all Zaydis, though, support the Houthi cause. Hence, the Houthi movement officially started in the 1990s in northern Yemen as a reaction to rising economic and religious influence from Saudi Arabia. 

In November of 2009, the Houthis crossed into Saudi Arabia amidst their rebellion against Yemen’s central government entity. Additionally, this marks the first time in history the Saudi army deployed troops abroad without a military or economic ally, launching airstrikes against the rebels as well as engaging in ground ambushes, causing the death of more than 130 Saudis. In March 2015, another round of fighting began. A joint coalition formed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) launched intensive airstrikes in Yemen, targeting the Houthi rebels. However, despite U.N. efforts to broker peace talks, the war between Houthis and Yemen’s government and its allies was prolonged. 

On November 4, 2017, the tension further escalated when a ballistic missile was fired at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. The Houthis claimed responsibility for the attack, marking the first time a ballistic missile had struck so close to the capital since the start of the conflict. However, tensions worsened when the Houthis assassinated Yemen ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had officially sided with the Houthis in May of 2015, helping them gain control over much of northern Yemen—though the alliance was unstable. 

Throughout the years, the Houthis had claimed responsibility for drone attacks on two key oil installations in Saudi Arabia despite conflicting credentials from U.S. intelligence. In the early 2020s, the Houthis widened the scope of the conflict by targeting the UAE with drones and ballistic missiles, forcing the Emirati and U.S. military forces to intercept two missiles fired by the Houthis toward Abu Dhabi.

Tried Policy 

In 2021, Donald Trump designated the Houthi rebels as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), banning members of the organization from traveling to the United States, and freezing their financial assets. However, this did not have its intended effect of mitigating violence propagated by the rebels, as Houthi leadership does not travel abroad, nor do they own assets overseas that can be frozen. The designation of the Houthi movement as an FTO had the further unintended consequence of eliminating humanitarian aid for 16 million Yemeni citizens and making it more difficult for U.N. peace talks to be held. 

After coming into office in 2021, one of Biden’s first major foreign policy decisions was to lift the designation of the Houthi rebels as “terrorists'' to increase the flow of aid into Yemen. However, after recent attacks in the Red Sea, the Biden administration reinstated this designation on the Houthis, declaring them a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” (SDGT) group. Blinken, United States Secretary of State, released a statement claiming that “this designation seeks to promote accountability for the group’s terrorist activities. If the Houthis seize their attacks in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, the United States will reevaluate this designation.” National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby clarified that this “designation targets the Houthis, not the Yemeni people,” with carve-outs for Yemeni citizens. This specification is evidence of an effort to minimize the designation’s third-party effect on Yemeni citizens. In addition to reversing the designation, the U.S. executed six self-defense strikes on March 12th, eliminating 18 Houthi anti-ship missiles in Yemeni waters in response to the initial strikes.

The regional significance of the Houthi uprising in Yemen is far greater than the maintenance of political stability on the Arabian Peninsula, as the war is also divided along the  Sunni and Shi’a sects of Islam The intervention of Saudi Arabia (pro-Sunni) and Iran (pro-Shia) in this conflict is motivated by the hope to strategically outmaneuver one other in Yemen and to grow their respective religious faction. Saudi Arabia began to operate in the country in 2015 with the support of a regional coalition of allied powers, but has failed to eliminate the Houthi presence. By perpetuating the armed conflict, Saudi Arabia seemingly escalaed the humanitarian crisis. 

Notably, American support for the Saudi-led intervention began under President Obama in 2015 and was strengthened under President Trump, but was officially halted by President Biden in 2021. However, arms sales owing to the 2017 Saudi-American arms deal still provide some American influence over the conflict, despite relative opposition from the public. While President Trump continually endorsed a pro-Saudi policy in Yemen, Biden has somewhat distanced himself from his predecessor’s support toward Riyadh, even going so far as to remove an official terrorist designation from the Houthis that was instituted by Trump.

Concurrently, peacemaking efforts from the United Nations have failed to bring about a lasting resolution to the conflict. Since the onset of the war in 2014, eight resolutions have been passed by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), including the renewal of a comprehensive set of sanctions in 2022 involving a large arms embargo, asset freeze, and travel ban specifically directed against Houthi groups. The sustained attention of the United Nations primarily derives from the humanitarian crisis surrounding the war, with various powers repeatedly calling for a cessation of Saudi and Houthi airstrikes to allow for international aid to be distributed in Yemen. The most promising peace yet was achieved in December 2023 through a peace deal partially brokered by China between Saudi Arabia and Iran, seen by many as an attempt at resolving the proxy war perpetuating the crisis. 

Despite this ceasefire, the global response against the Houthis escalated as a result of their ongoing blockade of Israel, forcing the United States and a naval coalition of 20 powers (ten of which are anonymous) to take direct military action against Houthi rebels.such action, Labeled collectively as Operation Prosperity Guardian, the response was supported by a UNSC resolution regarding the effect of Houthi actions on trade chokepoints in the Suez Canal and the Red Sea. This specific facet of the Houthi movement remains unresolved through both military and diplomatic means.  

A.Current Stances

Following a series of attacks launched on Yemen in January 2024 by the United States and United Kingdom, with support from the Netherlands and Canada, spokesperson Nasser Kanaani for Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated: “These attacks are a clear violation of Yemen’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and a breach of international laws.” Saudi Arabia and Turkey shared the same sentiment, with Riyadh echoing concerns of the “security and stability of the Red Sea region” being at risk,” and Ankara fearful of the U.S. and UK’s efforts in “trying to turn the Red Sea into a sea of blood.” Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi rebutted in his statement that “the Israeli aggression on Gaza” is “responsible for the rising tensions witnessed in the region.”

Many Western European countries have either expressed a more neutral stance towards the conflict, advocating for de-escalation, or have spoken out in opposition to Hamas and the Houthis. Germany and Spain have both advocated for a restoration of peace, while France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Denmark all support U.S-British attacks in the Red Sea, characterizing them as “self-defense” to protect free passage in the region. 

Policy Problem

Once a fringe faction of marauding rebels, the Houthis have bolstered their arsenal in recent years, which now features a panoply of weapons from cruise and ballistic missiles to long-range drones. ⁤⁤Analysts largely attribute this rags-to-riches transition to backing from Iran. Tehran has been instrumental in supporting militias (including the Houthis) across the Middle East to counter and supplant Saudi Arabia’s influence in the region. ⁤

⁤When the most recent Israel-Palestine conflict ensued on October 7, 2023, the Houthis were not reticent in declaring their unwavering support for the people of Gaza, vowing to take down any ships traveling to or from Israeli ports. ⁤⁤Yahya Sarea, a Houthi spokesman, has stressed the group’s commitment to disrupting maritime traffic in protest against the ongoing violence in Gaza. ⁤⁤The group sees disrupting the trade of Israel’s allies as a means to stand in solidarity with the Palestinian people. ⁤

⁤To date, the Houthis have launched over twenty-seven attacks using drones and missiles on vessels crossing the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, allegedly heading toward or departing from Israeli ports. ⁤⁤Notably, one of the most successful Houthi onslaughts was on November 19 last year, when gunmen declaring allegiance to the Houthis hijacked a vessel named the Galaxy Leader, holding its 25 crew members hostage in a Yemeni port. ⁤

⁤Talking to reporters in Bahrain on January 10, Secretary Blinken warned against the consequences of protracted Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, stressing its potential to disrupt global supply chains and force a rise in commodity prices, particularly in Israel. ⁤⁤However, a recent report from Israel's Ministry of Finance maintains that the impact of the attacks on Israel has been very limited. ⁤

⁤The world’s major container companies, MSC and Maersk, have naturally avoided the Red Sea, leaving other shipping companies grappling with difficult choices. ⁤⁤Rerouting vessels entails a significant increase in time and fuel consumption. On the other hand, utilizing the Red Sea risks inflated insurance premiums, adding strain to an already enervating shipping industry.

⁤Operation Prosperity Guardian has been actively patrolling the Red Sea to safeguard freedom of navigation and shipping. ⁤⁤To American dismay, Bahrain is the sole Middle Eastern participant in the operation, with reluctance amongst regional countries to align closely with the United States, Israel’s most powerful ally. ⁤

U.S. and British warships have intercepted some Houthi missiles and drones before they reached their targets. Recently, American fighter jets from the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Dwight D. Eisenhower, along with four other warships, intercepted 18 drones, two anti-ship cruise missiles, and one anti-ship ballistic missile, Central Command said in a statement, and on December 31 last year, U.S. Navy helicopters sank three Houthi boats attacking a commercial freighter. However, the Revolutionary Guard military operation, which consists of the ideological custodian of Iran’s 1979 revolution: the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the Hezbollah, and Hamas — working with Houthi allies — demands serious attention as it means Iran poses a grave threat to two of the world’s most important trade chokepoints. Iran already lies on the Strait of Hormuz, which carries 40 percent of oil shipments, and its Yemeni proxy campaign means it can now also threaten the Bab el-Mandeb, linking the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal.

As the Houthis continue their attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea, the Biden administration finds itself with a menu of largely unappetizing options, ranging from the status quo of defending the route to direct military strikes on Iran. For now, The Biden administration appears to have settled on a “deter and degrade” approach. While not yet successful, this approach is likely the best of the available options. With sharp criticism from a large section of the American population and the world at large that President Biden is empowering a ‘genocide’ in Gaza, it would prove difficult for the incumbent US government to justify any military action against the Houthis.

Policy Options

With the complexity of the Houthi cause and the entwinement of other countries within the conflict, there are several factors to consider, with a diverse number of policy options that can be pursued. Universally speaking, a diplomatic approach would fulfill the qualms of American politicians and allies such as the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia. Many American officials continue to urge the federal government to keep the U.S. out of the Middle Eastern conflict or formally present Congress with a resolution to involve the U.S. Though military approaches would do little to harm American assets directly, the potential backlash from allies in the region could be detrimental to keeping the Houthi rebel cause contained in the Middle East. A diplomatic approach with ceasefires or negotiations could help prevent the outbreak of a civil war in Yemen and the sprawl of war from Gaza.

For a global response, urging the United Nations to enforce weapon embargoes could help prevent larger international conflict by blocking Houthi support from Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. Once the key figures supplying weapons and artillery are removed, the tensions of the conflict will be reduced, allowing for a stable ceasefire to promote grounds for negotiation. 

A direct approach would be to target certain demands of the Houthi rebels, such as increased aid to Gaza. Focusing on aid shipments and increased support for citizens in Gaza could lessen some of the tension between the U.S. and the Houthi rebels. 

Finally, the U.S. government could focus on growing a quiet economic “independence” within Yemen. Due to Houthi control and port blockage, as well as growing conflict within Houthi-controlled land, much of the Yemeni population is unable to access basic essentials or power. The U.S. government's humanitarian responses are limited within different sectors of the country, and part of the response could involve supporting energy infrastructure (such as oil or natural gas plants) within Yemen to encourage self-supply during long intervals of blocked resources. Providing Yemen with the economic and military stability to continue advancement amidst Houthi occupation would be beneficial for the country’s future democracy.


The ongoing Houthi conflicts in the Red Sea require a careful diplomatic and military approach. Millions of lives are at stake due to the economic importance of the shipping routes being directly impacted by the offensive attacks. Regional stability is also on the line, with the underlying causes for conflict in Israel leading to many of the hostilities.


The Institute for Youth in Policy wishes to acknowledge Michelle Liou, Joy Park, Nolan Ezzet and other contributors for developing and maintaining the Policy Department within the Institute.


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