The Battle for Hodeidah, code-named Op Golden Victory, which commenced in June this year, has seen some very violent and critical clashes in the past few weeks. Hodeida seems to be the decisive chapter in the Yemen War. Often called the ‘Forgotten War’, the Yemen War will complete four years in March 2019. In fact, the result of the battle for al-Hodeidah could determine whether the Houthis continue to hold the constitutional capital- Sana’a- or whether the Saudi-led coalition would be able to oust them.
The Strategic Importance of al-Hodeidah
The following points elucidate why Hodeidah is such a crucial and conclusive battle-ground:
Geographically, Hodeidah provides access to the strait of Bab el Mandeb which connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden. Bab el Mandeb is the fourth busiest shipping choke-point in the world through which ~4% of the world’s oil supply passes.1 It provides the fastest route from Europe to Asia.2
In July this year, two Saudi Very Large Crude Carriers (VLCCs) were targeted by the Houthis, following which Saudi Arabia had suspended all oil shipments through this strait3 which is just 30 km wide at its narrowest. Fall of Hodeidah would close the access of the Houthis to all coastal fronts and render them land-locked.
Militarily, the capture of Hodeidah would mean that the Saudi-led coalition would be in a position to mount a consolidated attack on the Houthi-held constitutional capital – Sana’a. Hodeidah is believed to be the port from where the Houthis smuggle in weapons such as ballistic missiles.4 Fall of this port city could impact the weapons-supply of the Houthis.
Hodeidah is of paramount importance from the humanitarian angle Two-thirds of the Yemeni population is dependent on aid for survival.5 The Saudi-led coalition’s blockade of Yemen has made Hodeidah so very crucial for the civilians. Any blockade of this port could result in a full-scale famine in Yemen as a major chunk of the humanitarian aid flows in through this port and so do 80% of Yemen’s food imports.6 Wrestling this port city from the Houthis would position the Saudi-led coalition as the top guarantor of food-security of Yemen.
Economically, the control of Hodeidah has allowed Houthis to generate income by means of tariffs on imports and exports,7 re-selling of aid, and revenue from shipments visiting the port.8 Loss of Hodeidah would deprive the Houthis of a crucial source of revenue.
The Houthi Naval Thrust
A very significant aspect of the Battle for Hodeidah has been the naval thrust by the Houthi fighters. The American destroyer USS Mason has been targeted thrice by the Houthis – twice while operating in the Bab el-Mandeb strait, and once while operating in the Red Sea. The second attack came from the vicinity of Hodeidah.9
Saudi Arabian oil tankers have also been attacked by the Houthis. This year alone, Saudi vessels have been targeted thrice – in January, April, and in July. The April attack was carried out off the port of Hodeidah.10 Similarly, the military vessels of the UAE have also been targeted.11
In fact, the use of unmanned, remote-controlled boats laden with explosives (variously called bomb boats/drone boats/suicide boats) by the Houthis have redefined suicide-attacks as it is generally understood. The Saudi-led coalition has intercepted and destroyed many such vessels.12
Rampant use of free-floating sea mines by the Houthis is also noteworthy.13 A large number of sea mines have been planted in the western coast of the country. In fact, two Yemeni fishermen were killed last week due to these mines near Hodeidah.14
The Saudi-led coalition claims to have destroyed 86 naval mines since the time military operations began in Yemen.15
Even though Hodeidah is a commercial hub and one of the most populous cities in Yemen,16capturing the port by coastal and aerial offensives would not require urban warfare as the port is separate from the city.17 Urban warfare would come into the picture if and when the battle continues on land and shifts towards the city and thereafter, Sana’a.
Saudi Arms Deals
Many countries have cancelled or brought down their total arms-sale to Saudi Arabia in wake of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, and more recently, in the aftermath of the Khashoggi incident, but Saudi Arabia has little to worry.18 It has suppliers right from the North American continent (USA) to the Asian continent (China) through Europe. President Trump’s statement calling the idea of cancelling any arms contract with Saudi Arabia “foolish” as it would benefit Russia and China only shows that Saudi Arabia has the steadfast support of its largest arms supplier.19
Given the key role of the battle of Hodeidah in being able to drastically change the power-balance, it’s pretty obvious that the Saudi-led coalition would leave no stone unturned to make sure that it takes control of the port city. Whatever be the humanitarian cost, it seems that the coalition, especially the Saudis, are not looking for anything short of a decisive victory. Though the UN was successful in forestalling the operations in Hodeidah last time,20 it does not appear that the Saudi-led coalition would agree to another such act. The Houthis too will fight with every available resource as the fall of Hodeidah would inevitably mean the fall of Sana’a as well. The next few weeks will be crucial, but as things stand now, it’s advantage Saudi-led coalition.
1 Joseph Hammond, “Hodeidah: The strategic port at the centre of Yemen’s war”, The Defence Post,https://thedefensepost.com/2018/04/04/hodeidah-port-yemen-war/ accessed on Nov 28, 2018
2 Naser Al Wasmi, “Why the battle for Hodeidah is important”, The National,https://www.thenational.ae/world/mena/why-the-battle-for-hodeidah-is-important-1.730402 accessed on Nov 28, 2018
3 “Saudi Arabia suspends oil exports through Bab al-Mandeb”, Al Jazeera,https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/07/saudi-arabia-suspends-oil-exports-bab-el-mandeb-180725215417388.html accessed on Nov 28, 2018
4 Naser Al Wasmi, “Why the battle for Hodeidah is important”, The National,https://www.thenational.ae/world/mena/why-the-battle-for-hodeidah-is-important-1.730402 accessed on Nov 28, 2018
5 Bethan McKernan, “Battle for Hodeidah: Why is the Yemeni city so important and what will the fighting mean for civilians?”, The Independent, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/yemen-hodeidah-battle-why-important-saudi-arabia-uae-iran-houthi-a8397391.html accessed on Nov 28, 2018
6 Naser Al Wasmi, “Why the battle for Hodeidah is important”, The National,https://www.thenational.ae/world/mena/why-the-battle-for-hodeidah-is-important-1.730402 accessed on Nov 28, 2018
7 “Why is the Arab coalition’s control of Yemen’s port city Hodeidah important?”, Al Arabiya English,http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/gulf/2018/05/30/Why-the-control-of-Arab-coalition-on-Yemen-s-port-city-Hodeidah-is-important-.html accessed on Nov 28, 2018
8 Joyce Karam, “ Hodeidah battle is make or break battle for Houthis in Yemen”, The National,https://www.thenational.ae/world/mena/hodeidah-battle-is-make-or-break-moment-for-houthis-in-yemen-1.735190 accessed on Nov 28, 2018
9 Sam LaGrone, “Pentagon Pledges to Respond in ‘Appropriate Manner’ After New Yemen Missile Attack on USS Mason”, USNI News, https://news.usni.org/2016/10/12/pentagon-respond-appropriate-manner-new-missile-attack-uss-mason-yemen accessed on Nov 28, 2018
10 “Yemen vice president: Houthi attack on Saudi oil tanker obstructs peace process”, Arab News,http://www.arabnews.com/node/1345766/middle-east accessed on Nov 28, 2018
12 “Saudi Navy Intercepts Two Explosives-Filled Drone Boats”, The Maritime Executive, https://www.maritime-executive.com/article/saudi-navy-intercepts-two-explosives-filled-drone-boats accessed on Nov 28, 2018
13 Joseph Hammond, “Hodeidah: The strategic port at the centre of Yemen’s war”, The Defence Post,https://thedefensepost.com/2018/04/04/hodeidah-port-yemen-war/ accessed on Nov 28, 2018
14 “Houthi sea mine explosion kills two Yemeni fishermen in Hodeidah”, Al Arabiya English,http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/gulf/2018/11/19/Houthi-s-sea-mine-explosion-kills-two-Yemeni-fishermen-in-Hodeidah-.html accessed on Nov 28, 2018
15 “Arab coalition destroys 86 Houthi-planted naval mines in Red Sea”, Arab News,http://www.arabnews.com/node/1410926/saudi-arabia accessed on Nov 28, 2018
16 “Saudi-led coalition closes in on Yemen port city Hodeidah”, Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-security/saudi-led-coalition-closes-in-on-yemen-port-city-hodeidah-idUSKCN1IT21K accessed on Nov 28, 2018
17 Joseph Hammond, “Hodeidah: The strategic port at the centre of Yemen’s war”, The Defence Post,https://thedefensepost.com/2018/04/04/hodeidah-port-yemen-war/ accessed on Nov 28, 2018
18 Angela Dewan, “These are the countries still selling arms to Saudi Arabia”, CNN,https://edition.cnn.com/2018/11/22/middleeast/arms-exports-saudi-arabia-intl/index.html accessed on Nov 29, 2018
19 Office of the Press Secretary, “Trump’s statement on Saudi crown prince and the killing of Jamal Khashoggi”, CNN, https://edition.cnn.com/2018/11/20/politics/trump-statement-saudi-khashoggi/index.html accessed on Nov 29, 2018
20 Patrick Wintour, “ UN talks help stall Saudi-led assault on strategic Yemen port”, The Guardian,https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jun/29/un-talks-help-stall-saudi-led-assault-on-strategic-yemen-portaccessed on Nov 29, 2018