Over the past two months, as we previously reported, the Houthis – a Yemen-based terrorist group allied with Iran – perpetrated a series of attacks on vessels in the Red Sea, in retaliation for the Israel-Hamas War. Attacks escalated, and over the past month, shipping operations in the Middle East region were severely curtailed. As a result, shipping costs were starting to creep up for many port calls and transits in the region.
The U.S. and its global partners launched a new effort to push back against the attacks and safeguard vessels.
Last week, the U.S. and its allies spearheaded the launch of its counterterrorism and security effort, codenamed “Operation Prosperity Guardian.” The operation aims to secure critical waterways in the Middle East, particularly the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. Operation Prosperity Guardian was crucial to implement, as shipping and the entire regional supply chain, was disrupted by attacks and the threat of further attacks.
As part of Operation Prosperity Guardian, participants in the effort set out very specific aims. First, the operation aims to end the Houthi blockade of Israeli vessels in the Red Sea and surrounding waterways. Second, the aim is to push back against Houthi attacks and the threat of attacks, by countering these attacks. Operation Prosperity Guardian has over 20 participants from around the world.
As of this week, Operation Prosperity Guardian has been implemented and is underway, with some progress for shipping.
Almost immediately, Operation Prosperity Guardian is paying off. Large shippers in the region, who have been weary of coming under attack and postponed/cancelled port calls and voyages in the Red Sea, Suez Canal, and other regional waterways, have begun to restart those calls.
Maersk announced this week that it has resumed operations on the Suez Canal and will return its vessels to the Red Sea. Previously, Maersk paused operations in some waterways in the region due to threats. In a statement, Maersk said:
“As of Sunday 24 December 2023, we have received confirmation that the previously announced multi-national security initiative Operation Prosperity Guardian (OPG) has now been set up and deployed to allow maritime commerce to pass through the Red Sea / Gulf of Aden and once again return to using the Suez Canal as a gateway between Asia and Europe.”
What would shippers have done without Operation Prosperity Guardian in place?
In general, global shipping, whether from Asia to the U.S. East Coast, or from other regions of the world, would have been much more challenging if the U.S. and its global partners did not put a military operation in place.
Shipping organizations had made alternative arrangements in the event that the attacks on vessels did not come under control through a military operation. Last week, shipping forwarders and consultancies reported that some cargo owners were resorting to airfreight as a shipping method, despite its costly nature. Maersk and other large shippers had been traversing the Horn of Africa or the Cape of Good Hope, a process that could add as much as two weeks to shipping voyages.
Despite military operations against the Houthis, threats remain.
Threats are still a major issue for shipping in the Middle East, particularly the Red Sea. For example, on December 26th, a Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) vessel MSC United VIII was attacked en route from Saudi Arabia to Karachi, Pakistan.
It will be a long time before shipping is fully back to normal in the region, as the war between Israel and Hamas shows no signs of ending in the weeks ahead.