Assessing the Environmental Ramifications of the “Roubimar” Shipwreck in the Gulf of Aden – The Arab Wall
Assessing the Environmental Ramifications of the “Roubimar” Shipwreck in the Gulf of Aden

Assessing the Environmental Ramifications of the “Roubimar” Shipwreck in the Gulf of Aden

The Arab World Center for Advanced Research and Studies, based in Cairo, organized a hearing session titled “What are the environmental impacts of the sinking of the British ship ‘Robimar’ in the Gulf of Aden?” on March 5, 2024. The session featured Dr. Abdulhafiz Al Nahari, Deputy Head of the Media Department in the Yemeni General People’s Congress Party, as the main speaker. Additionally, several experts and researchers specializing in various fields participated in the session. These included Dr. Mohammed Ezz El-Arab, Dr. Mohammed Abbas Naji, Professor Karam Saeed, Dr. Hamdi Bashir, Professor Mohammed Omar, Professor Ali Atef, Professor Mervat Zakaria, Professor Nadine Al Mahdi, Professor Nahla Abdel-Moneim, and Professor Tharwat Fathi.

The Dangerous Consequences

Dr. Abdulhafiz Nahari addressed the perilous aftermath of the sinking of the British ship Rubimar, which fell victim to an attack by the Houthi group in Yemen on February 18, 2024, in the Gulf of Aden. Key consequences highlighted during his discussion include:

1. Environmental devastation: The Rubimar, carrying approximately 41,000 tons of fertilizers alongside an oil cargo, poses a significant threat to Yemen’s environment. With water seeping into the vessel post-sinking, the resultant leakage will have dire environmental repercussions, particularly for Yemen’s fisheries, upon which many Yemenis depend.

2. Impact on Red Sea bordering nations: The environmental ramifications of the Rubimar’s sinking extend beyond Yemen to countries bordering the Red Sea. This catastrophe jeopardizes not only fisheries but also coral reefs and marine life in general, given the Red Sea’s shallow depth and the ease with which pollutants can spread through its waters. Moreover, continued targeting of ships by the Houthis raises concerns about potential future accidents, exacerbating environmental crises.

3. Impact on Red Sea navigation: The sinking of the Rubimar or similar incidents will have repercussions on navigation in the Red Sea. Concerns about collisions are heightened, particularly given the shallow depths of the Bab el-Mandeb strait. This raises the risk of further ship sinkings, exacerbating environmental and material losses, and disrupting global trade.

4. Damage to Yemeni food security: The Red Sea is a vital source of sustenance for hundreds of thousands of Yemeni families, supporting an estimated 2 to 3 million individuals who rely on fishing. Therefore, incidents such as the sinking of the Rubimar threaten marine ecosystems, consequently disrupting the fishing industry.

5. Closure of Hodeidah ports: Hodeidah hosts three crucial ports, the closure of which by the Houthi group impedes the flow of food aid into Yemen and disrupts trade. With an estimated population of around 20 million under Houthi control, this closure significantly impacts Yemenis, exacerbating their already dire situation. Moreover, the United States’ classification of the Houthi group as a terrorist organization, attributed to its targeting of international navigation, further obstructs the delivery of international aid, worsening the decade-long suffering of the Yemeni people.

Beneficiaries of Escalation

Nahari highlighted the primary beneficiaries of the Houthi escalation in the Red Sea, outlining them as follows:

1. Iran: Tehran actively pursues the perpetuation of conflict and escalation in the Red Sea region. Recognizing that Yemen’s geography offers strategic advantages for exerting control, Iran sees the presence of its Houthi allies in Yemen as pivotal. The Houthis’ affiliation with Iran ensures a favorable environment for Tehran’s interests. Iran capitalizes on the group’s attacks on ships to manipulate the situation, exert pressure on Western nations, disrupt the global economy, and impede trade using rudimentary tools such as missiles, drones, and explosive-laden boats. Moreover, Iran maintains a measured involvement in the conflict, seeking to maximize gains from Western powers while minimizing its own risks.

2. The United States and Western countries: Despite incurring some losses, they stand to benefit from the militarization of the Red Sea. Their primary aim is to disrupt Chinese interests in the region, particularly impacting China’s Belt and Road Initiative and its oil imports. Additionally, they seek to maintain their significant military presence in the area. Consequently, Beijing felt compelled to dispatch a symbolic naval fleet to the region to prevent Western domination and safeguard its trade and economic interests.

3. The Houthi group: The escalation in the Red Sea has positioned the Houthi group as one of its main beneficiaries. Leveraging the fifth Gaza war, the group has bolstered its legitimacy and popularity within Yemen, enhancing its standing among Arab populations. Furthermore, it aspires for international recognition and aims to partake in negotiations and dialogue, rather than being perceived solely as a militia or terrorist organization.

A Failed Confrontation

Nahari delved into the factors contributing to the failure of international interventions and maritime alliances aimed at thwarting threats posed by the Houthi group in the Red Sea and safeguarding international navigation. These factors encompassed:

1. Yemen’s challenging geographical terrain: Yemen’s rugged landscape has provided the Houthi rebels with advantageous conditions for executing missile operations and targeting ships in key maritime zones such as the Red Sea, Arabian Sea, and the Gulf of Aden. The terrain enables swift concealment post-operations. Moreover, natural mountainous regions within Yemen serve as covert storage sites for the Houthis’ advanced weaponry, shielding them from detection or destruction by British, American, or other military forces. These strategic hideouts were established during the tenure of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh and subsequently seized by the Houthis.

2. Limited efficacy of American and British airstrikes: Despite concerted efforts, airstrikes conducted by the United States and Britain in retaliation to Houthi assaults on naval vessels since the onset of 2024 have yielded minimal impact. The United States, wary of embarking on another protracted conflict akin to Afghanistan, has refrained from extensive involvement or widescale warfare in Yemen. Consequently, both nations have opted for targeted strikes, constrained by their limited capacities and reluctance to escalate hostilities.

3. Western reluctance to engage in widescale conflict with Iran: While Tehran serves as the primary instigator and supporter of the Houthi group, prompting tensions in the Red Sea region, Western powers have refrained from direct military intervention or imposing significant sanctions on Iran. Their preference is to contain the conflict, avoiding escalation beyond the current level.

4. Western acquiescence to Houthi control of the Red Sea: Western nations indirectly facilitated the Houthi group’s dominance over the strategic Hodeidah province on the Red Sea by preventing Yemeni government forces from reclaiming the area, as stipulated by the Stockholm Agreement. This strategic decision was made with the intention of leveraging control over the three vital ports of Hodeidah. However, the ultimate outcome was the Houthi consolidation of power in Hodeidah, enabling them to bolster their military capabilities, procure weapons from Iran via sea routes, and deploy naval mines. The Saudi-led “MASAM” project played a pivotal role in demining substantial portions of both maritime and land-based mines.

5. Houthi acquisition of advanced weaponry: The Houthi presence in Hodeidah facilitated their acquisition of medium and long-range advanced missiles, as well as advancements in their guidance systems.

6. Ongoing Iranian backing of the Houthi group: Iran persists in supporting the Houthi group by supplying them with missiles and advanced military equipment. Additionally, Iranian experts are dispatched to train Houthi fighters in weapon operation, assembly, and logistical procedures. This sustains the escalation in the Red Sea and facilitates replenishment of the Houthi military arsenal, compensating for losses incurred through American and British airstrikes.

A Mysterious Future

Nahari predicted that the future of escalation in the Red Sea may take the following paths:

First scenario: Escalation in the Red Sea persists post the conclusion of the Gaza conflict. It is anticipated that even if the Gaza conflict, which the Houthi group cites as justification for targeting ships in the Red Sea in solidarity with the Palestinian cause, concludes, the group will continue its Red Sea activities. Rather than halting, there may be different levels and methods of escalation, as has been the case for the past decade amidst international indifference. The international community’s attention to the region has only intensified following the Gaza conflict. Under Iranian influence, escalation is expected to persist as part of Iran’s broader strategy to negotiate with Western powers for maximum benefits. Any cessation of escalation would likely stem from an Iranian decision rather than one by Western nations. Given the complexity of the current situation, Iran sees an opportune moment to exploit events beyond its borders to advance its interests or mitigate potential threats.

Second scenario: The Houthis pursue international legitimacy as part of a separate strategy. Seeking to de-escalate tensions, the group endeavors to attain global recognition and engage in open negotiations with the United States to affirm its legitimacy. Behind-the-scenes discussions between the Houthis and Western powers have been ongoing for years.

The third track entails the imposition of levies on international shipping companies. As the escalation persists, it is anticipated that the Houthis will resort to levying fees on ships to deter targeting. Media reports have surfaced indicating that shipping companies are paying sums to the Houthi group to safeguard their vessels from attacks while traversing the Red Sea. This underscores the perpetuation of the crisis and the Houthi exploitation to amass substantial funds.

The fourth track involves the legitimate Yemeni government leveraging the events to garner international support. Perceiving that the international community’s unilateral strikes against the Houthis have yielded no victories and led to adverse consequences, the legitimate Yemeni government seeks assistance in eradicating the Houthi group and terminating its threats to Yemen and the global community. However, doubts linger regarding its capabilities, given its failure to achieve significant victories against the group over the past decade. This can be attributed largely to the fragmentation and disintegration of the legitimate government’s components and the factions opposing Houthi control.

The fifth track pertains to Iran’s consolidation of control over the Red Sea. Recent developments have solidified Iran’s influence across key maritime zones, including the Red Sea, Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, Arabian Sea, and the Gulf of Aden, facilitated through its alliance with the Houthis. This strategic positioning, coupled with its control over the vital Strait of Hormuz, has significantly bolstered Iran’s presence in the region, to the detriment of Arab countries. Notably, these developments align with Iran’s longstanding ambition dating back to 2004.

The sixth track involves the Gulf States grappling with the ramifications of maritime escalation. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries stand particularly vulnerable to the escalating tensions in the Red Sea. Enduring a decade-long struggle due to Houthi control over significant swathes of Yemen, these states now face exacerbated challenges stemming from the Red Sea events. The obstruction of oil and natural gas exports, coupled with disruptions to trade flows, exacerbates their economic strain. Furthermore, the Houthis leverage the escalation to convey messages of their capability to strike deep within Gulf states, exemplified by their targeting of the Israeli port of Eilat using missiles passing through Saudi waters. This underscores their potential to extend their reach to the Gulf states themselves.