Late last month, reports emerged from Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies that the Yemen Houthi rebels had attacked two Saudi oil tankers in the strait of Bab el-Mandeb, one of which sustained moderate damage. The Houthis, meanwhile, reported they had in fact attacked a Saudi warship, the Al-Damman frigate.
Taking anything reported by either the Houthis or the Saudis at face value is risky business, but defense and security expert Stephen Bryen has written an article for Asia Times on the possibility of each of these narratives being true.
The Houthis are aware, Bryen says, that an attack on a Saudi oil tanker would be perceived as a provocation, and this provocation would be a blow to Iran, which sponsors the rebels. The Houthis claim therefore that the Saudi reports of such an attack are a provocation—and a deliberate one.
This is a possibility: there are those who believe that Saudi Arabia, by claiming that the Houthis tried to sink an oil tanker, might be trying to pull the United States into the Yemen war. The suspension of oil shipments via Bab el-Mandeb, which immediately pushed prices higher, would certainly give the U.S. incentive to intervene. It is important to note, however, that such suggestions are pure speculation at the moment.
According to Bryen, whatever the motivation behind Saudi Arabia’s reports, it is much more likely that the Houthis hit a frigate, based on previous attacks on other Saudi warships and the weapons—suicide boats, missile launchers, and drones—that the Yemeni rebel group has at its disposal. What’s more, a Houthi military official told Chinese Xinhua that the Saudi ship was in the war zone in the Red Sea.
It is literally anyone’s guess who is telling the truth and who is lying. There are indeed two sides to every story, but in this story the sides are so hostile towards each other that any report coming from one side or the other needs to be taken with not a pinch, but a spoonful of salt.
The latest news from Sanaa has not helped clear the fog around the Red Sea events. The Houthis announced a two-week ceasefire in Red Sea operations, adding it could be extended if the Saudis and the Emiratis respond favorably. What’s more, “it can be renewed and expanded to other fronts if this initiative is well-received and reciprocated.” This olive branch just opens more ground for speculation.
The ceasefire could be an attempt at reputation management if the attack was indeed against an oil tanker, hence a clear provocation that led to the obvious result of Saudi Arabia suspending oil shipments via the Bab el-Mandeb.
On the other hand, it could just as well be a logical outcome of ongoing peace negotiations mediated by the UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths who recently described a meeting with Houthi leader as “fruitful”.
The ball is now in the Saudi/Emirati field. The coalition has had a tough time trying to gain control over the critical port of Hodeidah. The ceasefire could provide the coalition with an opportunity to exit this conflict while regaining some dignity in the face of what is quickly turning into the worst humanitarian crisis in recent memory. For Iran, the key sponsor for the Houthis, an end to the war might also be welcome—a little good publicity would be a rare boost for Iran’s international image. As for the tanker/warship mystery, it will probably remain a mystery until the war is over.