Troubled waters: How Europeans should respond to rising Red Sea tensions

epa11012877 A Houthi soldier walks through the beach with the Galaxy Leader cargo ship in the background, seized by the Houthis offshore of the Al-Salif port on the Red Sea in the province of Hodeidah
Image by picture alliance / EPA | YAHYA ARHAB
©

On Saturday, the Iran-backed Houthi militia said that they will target all ships in the Red Sea bound for Israel, regardless of nationality, “if Gaza does not receive the food and medicines it needs” and have since fired a missile at a Norwegian-flagged tanker. This comes after weeks of rising tensions, during which the Houthis attacked a US warship and three commercial vessels off the Yemeni coast on 3 December, and seized another commercial ship two weeks earlier, in retaliation for Israel’s war in Gaza.

These developments threaten freedom of navigation in one of the world’s busiest and most strategic maritime chokepoints, through which 40 per cent of Europe’s trade with Asia and the Middle East passes. Beyond the immediate threat, the attacks highlight the increasing fragility of the Red Sea, which has become a hotspot of geopolitical competition. And US efforts to address this instability by developing a regional security architecture based on greater Israeli-Gulf cooperation have been undermined by the Gaza war.

How Europeans should respond

Freedom of navigation in the Red Sea should be a key concern for Europeans. In response to the recent Houthi attacks, Europeans should step up their naval presence in the Red Sea and reinforce intra-European coordination through the European Union’s Coordinated Maritime Presences. They could adapt pre-existing mechanisms and initiatives – such as the EU’s Operation Atalanta – to the new challenges facing the Red Sea, and broaden the geographic scope of the French-led maritime awareness mission, EMASoH, in the strait of Hormuz.

Europeans should also comprehensively address the root causes of Red Sea instability by finding sustainable solutions to the conflicts in the region – from the ongoing war in Gaza to the longstanding conflict in Yemen and the worsening situation in Sudan and Ethiopia.

The failure of the United States’ attempts to construct a new regional security architecture highlights the need for an alternative process focused on inclusive regional cooperation rather than an exclusive anti-Iranian order. The EU should develop its own track of maritime security cooperation with regional powers, including with countries like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have shown growing interest in developing their naval forces in recent years.

Currents of conflict

Over the past decade, the Red Sea has re-emerged as a theatre of geopolitical rivalries, with the Gulf states, Turkey, and China all vying for influence, while the conflicts lining its borders threaten to spill over, as in recent weeks.

In the past, American, European, and regional policymakers have attempted to address these challenges by developing a more comprehensive regional security architecture. The US especially made Israeli-Gulf cooperation in the Red Sea a cornerstone of its strategy in the region, based on their shared concern over Iran’s re-emerging influence in the Red Sea. The US convened joint naval exercises in the Red Sea between Israel and the Gulf states in 2021-2022 and laid the ground for Israel’s joining of the Combined Maritime Forces. It also spearheaded diplomatic efforts to transfer the islands of Tiran and Sanafir from Egypt to Saudi Arabia, which control Israel’s access to the Red Sea. Now, the war in Gaza means that Red Sea security cooperation is unlikely to happen anytime soon, as Arab Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia are now unwilling to proceed with Israeli normalisation.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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