Germany contra Houthis

Karam Said, Tuesday 20 Feb 2024

The German government has approved the deployment of armed forces as part of an EU naval mission to protect merchant vessels transiting through the Red Sea, reports Karam Said

Germany contra Houthis


Germany will be contributing a frigate and up to 700 troops to the mission, which has been dubbed the Aspides Operation. Aspides is Greek for “shield.”  The ship and its crew will be joining a European Union fleet that will be operating in the Bab Al-Mandeb and Hormoz straits and the international waters of the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, Sea of Oman, and Arabian Gulf. German Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck stated that his government has been actively consulting with European allies on how to protect shipping in the Red Sea, which is of strategic importance to European security. The Ansarullah (Houthi) movement in Yemen began targeting primarily Israeli-linked vessels off the Yemeni coast in response to the Israeli war on Gaza. On 31 January, the EU High Representative for Security and Foreign Policy Josep Borrell announced the plan to establish an EU naval mission tasked with fending off attacks on shipping by the Iranian-backed Houthis.

Berlin has several reasons for taking part in Operation Aspides, which was formally approved on 19 February. Its most immediate concern is its energy sector, which has already suffered due to the war in Ukraine, now on the threshold of its third year. Pressures on this sector have increased since the Houthi began targeting Red Sea shipping, including oil tankers. The drop in oil imports from the Middle East has caused spikes in energy prices in Germany and aggravated inflation, especially given the higher rates of energy consumption in winter. The tensions in the Red Sea have directly impacted Germany’s contracting economy, which is struggling to achieve growth this year. Berlin’s anxieties in this regard are easy to understand. The economy relies heavily on exports and the disruptions in supply chains due to the Houthi threat to maritime routes in the Red Sea have slowed production. Germany’s key automotive industry, in particular, has been affected. In mid-January, the electric car company Tesla announced that it would suspend most of its production operations at its plant near Berlin because of a shortage in components due to delays in deliveries because of the situation in the Red Sea. “A significant increase in transport times is causing a gap in supply chains,” the company, which employs about 11,500 German employees, said in a statement.

The need to resort to alternative shipping routes has also caused freight prices to double, further reducing the competitiveness of German products. Indeed, the German decision to take part in the EU naval mission was also informed by the pressures from German shipping firms which have been urging Berlin to take a more proactive stance to bring the problem in the Red Sea under control. The German shipping company Hapag Lloyd had to reroute 25 of its container ships by the end of 2023 after the Houthis began to strike ships linked with Israel in response to Israel’s campaign of genocide and forceful population transfer in Gaza. However, not all ships targeted by the Houthis appear to be linked to Israel. Hapag Lloyd said that one of its ships was attacked near Yemen on 15 December while on route to Singapore.

Against the backdrop of rising tensions in the Middle East in the wake of Hamas’ Al-Aqsa Flood Operation and Israel’s ruthless assault against Palestinians in Gaza, Germany has become increasingly involved in European efforts to deal with regional threats as part of its desire to demonstrate its commitment to collective European security. A tangible sign of this was the departure of the German naval frigate Hessen, which set sail on 8 February from the North Sea port of Wilhelmshaven bound for the Red Sea to join the planned EU mission there.  Describing this as the most serious overseas commitment of a German naval unit in decades, Vice Admiral Jan Christian Kaack, the head of the German navy, told reporters in Berlin, “free sea trade routes are the basis of our industry and of our capability to defend ourselves. The current situation in the Red Sea has already caused bottlenecks in supply and forced some companies to stop their production.” He pointed out that more than 90 per cent of all goods reached Europe and Germany by sea.

The EU mission is part of a larger Western drive to contain the Houthis, the rising tensions in the Red Sea region, and the repercussions of this on Europe. However, the German decision to take part is motivated as much by its keenness to support and promote an EU collective security policy as it is by national interests. Germany has been hard hit from two years of economic fallout from the Ukraine war, which has aggravated domestic tensions. It is, therefore, all the more vulnerable to the economic impacts of the Israeli war on Gaza with its extensions into the Red Sea and elsewhere.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 22 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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