As most of the Yemeni ports are under Houthi rebel control, or at least embroiled in violent conflict, shipping lines are pulling away from the country that’s devolved into chaos in past weeks.
Ports in Yemen have been under increasing attack from Saudi and Arab ally states as the Western-backed coalition attempts to regain control of areas overrun with Houthi militias and al-Qaida jihadis.
After a series of Saudi airstrikes in late March, there were already reports that Yemen had shut down its major seaports, including terminals in the strategically located city of Aden. Port of Aden officials, however, publicly denounced the claims, saying the country’s largest container gateway was still operational in the midst of the quickly dissolving state of affairs.
By March 30, however, China announced it would be temporarily halting its participation in multinational patrols in the Gulf of Aden aimed at countering notorious Somali pirates. Chinese ships were instead diverted to evacuate Chinese nationals from the war-torn state.
Saudi Arabia and a coalition of Arab ally states have now deployed naval vessels into Yemen’s waters to intercept any ships carrying arms to rebels. Although merchant ships are meant to have free passage, many shipping lines are saying they are unwilling to risk their vessels.
“Many of the owners and container lines are refusing to go to Yemen,” an international commodities trade source involved in Yemen told Reuters. “You can still call at a number of ports, but the fear factor is growing.”
The world’s largest global shipping association, BIMCO, said: “If a port is taken/held by the Houthis and a ship is seen to be supplying the rebels, the ship could be at risk from air strikes or indeed naval action from the coalition.”
Another commodities trader said his vessel carrying wheat was held up for days by coalition ships before being allowed through into Yemen.
Yemen’s waters may soon be the next battleground, after Iran, suspected of supporting the Houthi rebellion, deployed its own naval fleet to the Gulf of Aden Wednesday. Its stated mission is to protect Iranian assets from piracy and monitor the gulf and Red Sea, Adm. Habibollah Sayyari told the state-run network this week.
Nevertheless, the U.S. Coast Guard has issued restrictions on certain vessels arriving at U.S. ports from a number of Yemeni gateways that “do not maintain effective anti-terrorism measures,” according to a statement.
The violence in Yemen has heightened concerns over the country’s primary export — oil. Yemen exports about 1.4 million to 1.5 million barrels of Masila crude each month, largely to China. It is far from being the biggest player in the Mideast oil market, but the current situation has heightened concerns the Yemeni crisis could stunt oil supplies from the entire region.
Although Yemen produces only a small amount of oil itself, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council states are nervous of any conflict that could affect the Gulf of Aden, which sees roughly 3.8 million barrels of oil pass through its waters daily.
For years, Yemen has been seen as a proxy battleground for Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran. The conflict in the region came to a head in March after President Hadi fled the country by sea as rebels and their allies moved on his last refuge in the south, captured its airport and put a bounty on the president’s head.
According to IHS Maritime 360, a sister brand of JOC.com within IHS Maritime and Trade, Yemenis are fleeing their home country in greater and greater numbers now that the civil unrest has evolved into what appears to be a civil war — many seeking refuge in Somalia, Djibouti and Somaliland to the south.
Ports along the southern shore of the Gulf of Aden are now congested with diverted vessels and refugee ships, the United Kingdom Mutual Steam Ship Assurance Association, also known as the U.K. P&I Club, has reported.
There is no immediate threat of the critical Bab al-Mandeb strait being closed to shipping, the group said, but ship masters and operators have been warned that the situation around Yemen is extremely volatile and that they should remain cautious.
The U.K. P&I Club on Thursday issued an advisory: “We recommend members contact their flag state and notify their war-risk insurers before proceeding to Yemen. Members should also be aware that in view of the instability, the ability of the club’s correspondents to assist with issues arising in Yemeni ports may be severely hampered.”