The Houthis and the Butterfly Effect: A Global Geopolitical Impact

By Noam Maital & Professor Shlomo Maital

The butterfly effect is the concept that small events can have significant, non-linear consequences in a complex system. Picture a butterfly flapping its wings and setting off a typhoon.

Today’s butterfly is an erstwhile obscure Shia Muslim tribe in Yemen, known as the Houthis, who now hold control over Yemen’s capital city and a substantial part of the North. Their slogan, “God is the greatest, death to America, Death to Israel, Cursed be the Jews, Victory to Islam,” echoes the rhetoric of Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

However, these Houthis have modern ballistic missiles, drones, and cruise missiles at their disposal, many of which have been provided or initiated by Iran, the Houthis’ patron. These weapons have been used to target shipping in the crucial Bab el Mandeb (also known as the Gates of Grief or Gates of Tears), an 18-mile-wide strait opposite Yemen that connects the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. The disruption caused by these attacks has reverberated through the global economy, initially aimed at Israel but now affecting shipping worldwide.

This situation serves as a stark reminder of how an internal dispute among Islamic factions in one of the world’s poorest countries can trigger a global economic “typhoon.”

In the 1990s, Yemen’s Zaydi Shia Muslims, comprising one-third of the country’s 33 million people, felt oppressed by Saudi-led Salafi Muslims. The conflict escalated in 2004 when their leader, Hussein al-Houthi, was killed. The group adopted his name and launched a prolonged insurgency. Today, the Houthis wield control over the capital and a significant portion of northern Yemen.

The Houthis have employed a variety of methods to attack shipping in the narrow Bab el Mandeb strait, including helicopters carrying terrorists who capture ships and bring them to Houthi-controlled ports, drones, speedboats, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles. This threat has compelled the world’s four largest shipping companies to suspend operations in the region.

Approximately 80% of the world’s traded goods are transported by sea, with shipping from the Gulf of Aden through Bab el Mandeb to the Red Sea and Suez Canal being a crucial trade route for oil and liquefied natural gas. Millions of barrels of oil and numerous LNG tankers traverse this route daily. The Suez Canal, which depends on this traffic, generated $9.4 billion in transit fees for Egypt in the fiscal year 2022/23.

Recognizing the gravity of the situation, the United States, led by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, recently announced a multinational operation to safeguard shipping in the region. This coalition includes the United Kingdom, Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Seychelles, and Spain, among others.

In a recent interview with Qatar’s Al-Jazeera, a Houthi spokesman named Hussein Alari responded to the U.S.-led Red Sea naval task force, issuing a stark warning: “…as soon as the United States tries to attack Yemen, the entire region will go up in flames, and the United States and Europe should reconsider because it’s winter now, and they are in desperate need of this oil… That’s why the one who currently holds the upper hand is the one who controls the Red Sea and Bab el Mandeb.”

The mere fact that such a small and seemingly remote faction like the Houthis can exert this level of influence over global trade is a testament to the butterfly effect in geopolitics. Perhaps more alarming is what the clash with the Houthi represents, a clash between the West and the modern day “evil axis” which includes Iran, Russia, Yemen, and other countries with dominant terrorist factions.

If the world does not address the above fundamental issue at hand, the economic implications may be the least of our worries in the long run.