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Houthi Attacks & Taiwan Election Update

Executive summary

  • Houthi attacks in the Red Sea have increased shipping costs by over 300% in the past 100 days. Delivery times have been extended, affecting the global economy.
  • Houthis are supported by Iran. Houthi ideology is simple: “God is great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Damnation to the Jews, Victory to Islam.” They are a product of centuries of war, some to repel outsiders as well as internal strife.
  • Taiwan’s election will not lead to major policy shifts by Taiwan or the West.

Houthi attack impacts: Is Shipping through the Red Sea Important?
About 30% of global container ship volume moves through the Suez Canal, which links the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden with the Mediterranean. At its most narrow between Bani Al Hakam in Yemen and the coast of Djibouti in Africa, shipping must traverse a 19-mile channel to enter/exit the Red Sea to/from the Gulf of Aden. This funnel closes rapidly from over 100 miles wide at the border of Yemen with Saudi Arabia, making any surface ship vulnerable both in terms of range from attacking missiles and predictability in their course, which worsened by the shallowing of the oceans and proximity of islands at the neck.

At the beginning of the Israeli War against Hamas, shipping rates for a standard 40-foot container were approximately $1500 per container through the Suez Canal. These rates have risen to over $5000.[1] Starting about November 18th, over 35 Houthi attacks have occurred. US Central Command and allies have conducted at least 15 missions in response, targeting missiles and support/staging areas.[2] Shippers now avoid the Red Sea in response to the attacks, adding about 14 days as ships sail around the southern tip of Africa. This has a multiplying effect on the availability of ships and containers, pushing out timelines for delivery of goods globally and increasing overall costs. Although a local group, the Houthis have now managed to have a global impact.

Yemen’s History:
Yemen has a complex history. Yemen’s path from 1200 BC to the early 1900’s is a story of intense trade between large city states, eventually linking ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia via overland trade routes. Rulers like Bilqis (the Queen of Sheba) helped grow the region as a farming and trade hub. Rome’s conquest in 1 BC initiated sea-based commerce, initiating the decline of land-based trade, and resulting in decreased wealth in the Middle East. The
next 2000 years:

  • The Islamic era began in the 7th century. A rapid and forceful spread of Islam in nearby Al Hijaz led to Yemen’s rapid and complete conversion to Islam.
  • Over 200 years of rule by distant caliphs halted when the Yemeni dynasty appeared in the 800’s.Yemen’s Arab-Islamic culture grew in relative isolation.
  • In 1538 the Ottoman Empire invaded most of Yemen. The Ottomans were ejected a century later, after a long struggle that united Yemeni identity.
  • Yemen was divided by the British seizure of Aden in 1839 and Ottoman reoccupation in 1849. For 50+ years British and Ottoman influence grew. In the early 1900’s, the two drew a border which delineated North and South Yemen.
  • After WW I, the Ottoman Empire ended. For 44 years two powerful imams ruled a Yemen virtually frozen in time. More recent events: the nationalist Free Yemeni Movement in the mid-40s; US recognized the Kingdom of Yemen (North) in 1946; an aborted 1948 revolution; a failed 1955 coup; and finally, a 1962 revolution deposed the imam, and the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) was declared under the leadership of Abdullah al-Sallal. The People’s Republic of Southern Yemen (Marxist) gained independence on Nov 30, 1967. The two unified as the Republic of Yemen in 1990.[3]
  • Years later, the Ansar Allah (Partisans of God) group emerged. It is named for its late founder, Hussein al-Houthi, today led by his brother, Abdul Malik al-Houthi. Since the early 2000’s the Houthis have engaged in rebellions and uprisings that seized control of the north and west from the government.

More Recent Events
The Houthis are terrorists, but not like Al Qaeda or ISIS. Locally focused, this group is dedicated to government overthrow by terrorizing their own people.[4] In November 2009, Houthis crossed into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). The KSA launched air strikes and engaged in ground skirmishes where over 130 Saudis died. In March 2015, a KSA and United Arab Emirates (UAE) coalition launched airstrikes against Houthi targets. The war has continued despite U.N. peace efforts.

Tensions escalated sharply in late 2017, when for the first time a ballistic missile was fired at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh. The Houthis claimed responsibility for the attack. In response Saudi Arabia imposed a near-total blockade of Yemen. From 2018 to 2022 Houthis used ballistic missiles and drones against Saudi and the UAE, with the US intercepting one missile attack on January 24, 2022 that threatened the 2,000+ US troops at Al Dahfra Air Base.[5]

Iran and the Houthi movement
Houthis and Iran share a common belief that Islam (specifically Shiite Twelver’s, followers of Khomeini) should overthrow unjust rulers and establish an Islamic based government. Since Iran’s 1979 revolution when a Twelver led the Shahs overthrow, Yemini Twelver’s have grown to about 10% of the population, traveled to Iran to study and eventually formed the Houthi movement. The KSA believes the Houthi’s growing strength presents a clear threat to Saudi’s strategy for economic development of their 13 regions.[6]

Iran’s goal is to subvert any western influence in the region, including their competitor Saudi Arabia. Any action which undermines America, and its allies, is beneficial.

In January 2021, as he left office, President Trump labeled the Houthis a global terrorist organization with the goal of cutting off funding and weapons (partially supplied by Iran) used to attack the KSA and UAE. The very next month, Biden’s administration revoked that designation and instead pressured Saudi Arabia by freezing arms sales to the Kingdom, offering contradictory statements about US strategy vis-à-vis the Houthis. In one statement, the administration claimed Saudi strikes caused the humanitarian crisis, rejected the terrorist designation of the Houthis, pledged to help protect Saudi Arabia from Houthi attacks but stopped the sale of the very weapons the Saudi’s needed to protect themselves.[7] The US State Department’s 2024 re-designation of the Houthi movement (Ansarallah) as a Specifically Designated Global Terrorist group fails to draw any linkage to their potential relationship with Iran[8] despite the fact the US State Department clearly outlined that linkage in 2021.

In May and December of 2021, U.S. Navy and partner forces interdicted dhows carrying Iran-origin weapons intended for the Houthis, including hundreds of heavy machine guns and sniper rifles; dozens of advanced, Russian-made anti-tank guided missiles; several hundred rocket-propelled grenade launchers and optical sights for weapons; and thousands of assault rifles.[9] One year ago, the UK announced that the British ship HMS Montrose had seized an unmanned quadcopter (drone) along with missiles and missile parts in February 2022 when they stopped and searched several ships in the Gulf of Oman. These weapons, including several surface-to-air missiles and components for Iranian Project 351 land attack cruise missiles, were presented to the UN, linking Iran to violations of Security Council resolutions barring weapons shipments to the Houthis.

Also, French naval forces in the Gulf of Oman in January 2022 seized thousands of assault rifles, machine guns and anti-tank missiles coming from Iran and heading to the Houthis.[10] The evidence is clear.

Houthi capabilities continue to improve due to support from not only Iran, but other terrorist organizations. These groups are all linked to Iran. Iran is the center, but Hezbollah, Hamas, the Houthis, and various Syrian and Iraqi militias increasingly communicate directly. Tehran actively fosters this, indicating the growing maturity of the network. Hezbollah has been at the forefront, with a growing role in Syria, Iraq, and now Yemen.[11] Iran provides not only weapons but crucial training to employ complex systems such as drones and guided missiles.

The WSJ recently reported that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hezbollah are deeply engaged in assisting the Houthis. According to Western officials, Iran has advisers in Yemen to assist the group’s naval attacks using rockets and drones. Technology transfer and training is overseen by Unit 340, which has trained Houthi personnel in Iran and Lebanon. It is led by Hamid Fazeli, a former head of Iran’s spacerocket program. Tehran hires smugglers to take weapons to Yemen from Iran, while others purchase spare parts through front companies. Iranian engineers assemble and operate the missiles and drones. Shipping-industry workers provide live intelligence about vessels to target.[12]

The Houthis will continue to attack ships, Yemini government forces/civilians, and the KSA/UAE coalition as long as they receive support from Iran. Disruption of the region and second order effects on global commerce are precisely what Iran hopes will result. Iran has rebuffed calls from China to rein in the Houthis as the Chinese see their costs for shipping grow higher. Iran seeks to link the attacks to a cease fire between Israel and Hamas.[13] The US, supported by over 40 nations such as the UK, France, Australia, Bahrain, Canada, the Netherlands and even nations like Ecuador will need to continue to work together to reduce and eliminate this threat.[14] The coalition must remain focused on the Houthi threat and not be drawn into wider ranging actions or linkages to the war in Gaza that are not directly related to ending the Houthi attacks. The effort may take months, possibly longer before shipping companies feel safe to transit the Red Sea again.

Elections in Taiwan: Staying the course without a referendum
On January 13th, 2024, voters elected Lai Ching-te to follow President Tsai Ing-wen of the independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party as Taiwan’s next president. Although this is an unprecedented third term for the party, Mr. Lai won just 40% of the vote; his next rival, Hou Yu-ih of the Kuomintang, won 34% while the Taiwan People’s Party garnered less than 20%.[15] Mr. Lai is an experienced politician who has held almost every top political post in Taiwan. Soft-spoken, this former doctor was a legislator for over a decade, then a popular mayor of the southern city of Tainan. He gets support from both hardline independence supporters, and with centrist voters. Distrusted by China, he once described himself as a “pragmatic worker for Taiwan independence”. Mr. Lai has promised to stick to Ms. Tsai’s careful maxim: because Taiwan is already independent, it needs no further declarations. Both of his opponents advocated more dialogue with China. Post election, the CCP issued a statement that “Taiwan is part of China”.

For his part, Xi Jinping gave a harsh speech holding that Taiwan should be ruled like Hong Kong, which in theory operates its own political system, but where China has crushed out democratic freedoms. Before the election, Xi may have in fact driven some Taiwanese toward Mr. Lai, who he called a “destroyer of peace”, with overt military exercises…even balloons floating across Taiwan. In Mr. Xi’s favor is the fact that Taiwan will face a divided government because no party obtained a majority in the Yuan, their legislative body.[16] Xi will be able to continue to call unification with Taiwan a “historic inevitability”, and if he does not gain control of Taiwan in the near term, he may avoid permanently losing Taiwan on his watch. His task is more complex with issues on the mainland such as a slowing economy, unemployment and a military that has it’s own mind at times.

Taiwan will continue to negotiate between the three parties in the Yuan, compromising to run the government without overtly challenging China. In his post-election interviews, Mr. Lai told reporters he favored more exchanges and dialogue over obstructionism and conflict with China and called for peace and stability with Beijing. At the same time, he added, he would “maintain the cross-strait status quo” – neither seeking independence nor unification with China – and pledged to “safeguard Taiwan from threats from China”.[17]

It appears that with continued United States support, and the more recent calls for the CCP to reign in their policy toward the region by US allies such as Japan and Australia, Taiwan’s election will have little effect either on relieving past tensions or moving aggressively toward a more independent status from China.


Learn more about the author, Advisory Board member and retired U.S. Air Force Major General Michael Snodgrass


[1] See:

[2] See:

[3] This is a compilation of three sources: History of Yemen;; and

[4] See: White Paper_02-01-22_v4

[5] See:

[6] See:

[7] See:

[8] See:

[9] See:

[10] See: See also State Department Iran Country Report

[11] See:

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[13] See:[1]say-2b0fb57b?mod=itp_wsj,djemITP_h

[14] See:

[15] See:

[16] See:

[17] See: