The Red Sea in history and today

Helena Cobban
10 min readJan 30, 2024


M/v Marlin Luanda afire after a Houthi missile attack

I was planning to write a quick essay here about how the Houthis’ robust pro-Gaza-ceasefire actions in the Red Sea have further strengthened the already clear (can we say “ironclad”?) tie-up between Israel’s ongoing genocide in Gaza and the massive shifts now underway in the balance of global power.

I will get to that a little more, below. But meantime the confrontations in the Red Sea and the adjacent Gulf of Aden seem to be escalating— along with the tensions between the U.S. ground/expeditionary forces at the crucial confluence of the Syria-Iraq-Jordan borders, where on Sunday, local anti-U.S. militias killed three U.S. service-members and injured dozens more in a drone attack.

In the global diplomacy over Gaza, much attention has been paid to the (not notably successful) missions that Sec. of State Blinken and CIA Director Bill Burns have been undertaking to try to win that ever-elusive Gaza-Israel ceasefire. Much less attention has been paid to the trip that Biden’s National security Advisor Jake Sullivan made to Bangkok last Friday, where he met with top PRC diplomat Wang Yi to try to persuade Wang to pressure Iran to rein in the Houthis’ actions in the Red Sea.

Sullivan was quite right to have figured out that China has an influential role to play in the security system of the Red Sea / Gulf Aden / Persian Gulf portion of the Indian Ocean’s sprawling and economically powerful trading system. But his attempt to win Beijing’s support for the U.S. Navy’s hegemonic military operations in that zone failed.

Politico wrote that after the two men held two days of talks,

the talks ended with no sign that China is willing to take decisive steps to use its economic influence on Iran — which funds and equips Yemen’s Houthi militia — to stem the threat to global supply chains.

The failure of Sullivan’s mission in Bangkok was just the latest in a series of failures the Biden team has had in winning support for its anti-Houthi campaign in the Red Sea. Previously, Washington had tried but failed to attract broad international enrollment in the campaign, which it named Operation Prosperity Guardian. It ended up winning operational participation only from the UK and some symbolic sign-on from a handful of other White/Western governments — along with, from the Global South, only Bahrain and the Seychelles. (Both those latter states are fairly distant from the Red Sea. Bahrain is a tiny statelet that hosts, and is propped up by, the U.S. Fifth Fleet.)

Most embarrassingly for the Biden team, they failed to win support for OPG from the two significant Arabian Peninsula states of Saudi Arabia and the UAE that from 2015 until recently were actively engaged in a vicious war against the Houthis in Yemen!

Sullivan and the team of geniuses (not!) who work for him probably thought that given China’s huge reliance on its trade with European markets, most of which sails through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, the Beijing government might be eager to cooperate in suppressing the Houthis’ actions. However, two days before Sullivan arrived in Bangkok, his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi noted pointedly that the US/OPG actions against Yemen had no international legitimacy.

Anyway, for some weeks now, Chinese-linked shipping operators have had their own workaround. They have pre-notified the Houthis about which of the ships transiting the strategic Bab el-Mandeb straits on their way to or from the Red Sea are China-linked: those vessels have won evident protection from the threats the Houthis have made against Israel-linked shipping since the end of November, and against U.S.- and UK-linked shipping since those two nations launched their OPG attacks on Yemen in late December.

On January 24, the writer Sophia published an intriguing post on Medium (paywalled) that showed the public information that some of those ships had posted on international electronic shipping registries like Vessel Finder. Here were two of her examples:

Sophia wrote that,

The Houthis are not stupid. Since they blew up the American ship, they have to enlist the support of several other big brothers.

On January 19, Mohammed Bakiti, a member of the Houthi armed politburo, publicly stated in an interview with Russian media that ships from Russia, China and other countries can safely pass through the Red Sea and will not be threatened when sailing in this sea area.

Not only can these ships safely pass through the Red Sea, the Houthis have also stated that they will be responsible for ensuring the safety of cargo ships from these countries when crossing the Red Sea.

She noted something even more intriguing, too:

According to “Global Ship Navigation Real-time Data”, the ships that were originally evenly distributed on the Red Sea channel suddenly disappeared, and the entire Red Sea channel became empty.

It turned out that a large number of ships were parked at the entrance of the Red Sea channel and gathered together. What were they doing?

They are waiting for the arrival of Chinese ships.

As long as a Chinese ship comes, these ships will surround them and forcibly form a huge fleet with this Chinese ship as the core, and then pass through the Red Sea together.

She then presented this January 24 image from one of the numerous available ship-tracking sites:

It is true that last Friday, an apparently Houthi missile struck an oil tanker called Marlin Luanda that was carrying Russian oil south to Asian markets. That attack raised fears among some shippers and insurers that the Russia/China protection from the Houthis might not be effective.

However, in the (intentionally murky) swirls of information about who owns or leases or sub-leases any particular ship, and under which flag of convenience, it turned out that the Marlin Luanda was “leased by Trafigura, but the lease is serviced by UK-based Oceonix Services. It’s owned by institutional investors in Luxembourg who are advised by JP Morgan… “

Another interesting point on the Houthi actions in the Red Sea: On January 24, two Maersk cargo ships that were sailing north toward the Bab el-Mandeb with a U.S. Navy accompaniment reported that three ballistic missiles launched from Houthi terrain had landed nearby. The cargo ships turned round.

Reporting in the U.S. corporate had depicted that event as an attack on “innocent” international cargo shipping. But in fact, as the shipping-news site gCaptain reported, the two ships,

are operated by Maersk Line, Limited (MLL), Maersk’s US-flag subsidiary. Both ships are enrolled in the U.S. Maritime Administration’s Maritime Security Program and Voluntary Intermodal Sealift Agreement (VISA) with the U.S government.

Maersk said the vessels are carrying cargo belonging to the U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Department of State, USAID, and other U.S. government agencies and “is therefore afforded the protection of the U.S. Navy for passage.”

It is very likely the ships were carrying military materiel from one of the U.S. Navy’s in the Gulf (Bahrain, or Qatar) northward to help resupply Israel’s genocide in Gaza.

Also of note: The publisher and CEO of the gCaptain site, an experienced mariner and a past leader of large-scale offshore construction projects called John Konrad, has been sounding the alarm in recent weeks about the deep structural vulnerabilities of the world’s sea-lanes in the era of the crumbling of U.S. hegemony.

In this op-ed from January 15, he wrote:

In a world that is quickly moving away from globalization, the maritime domain has become a crucial arena for global peace, prosperity, and security. However, there is a concerning lack of leadership in this domain, as it is fragmented across various industry segments, geographic locations, and naval interests. Individual maritime nations struggle to exert significant influence on their own, while diplomats and statesmen primarily focus on land and technology-based solutions.

In this January 28 op-ed, he really laid into the lack of clear leadership and direction from the two administration officials most responsible for the safe operations of the U.S. Merchant Marine, whom he identified thus:

the so-called Ghost Admiral, Ann Phillips of the US Maritime Administration (MARAD), and Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who, like turtles in their shells, have remained silent on the dangers faced by the US Merchant Marine in the Red Sea.

I want to close this quick survey of the relevance of the Red Sea sub-theater to to today’s very precarious global balance by pointing to two relevant resources that I have released earlier. One is this essay , titled “The Red Sea at the Hinge of History,” that I wrote in late April last year. I wrote it as I was reflecting on the broad global impact of the stunning influence China had demonstrated in West Asian affairs a few weeks earlier, when it publicly unveiled the success of its campaign to ease or substantially resolve the long-running and very consequential feud between the governments of Saudi Arabia and Iran.

( This late-March essay is also relevant to that topic.)

In the essay on the Red Sea “at the hinge of history” I surveyed several aspects of the role that waterway had played over the past two or more millennia. The essay notes the continuing importance of the Indian Ocean trading system as a whole. That system that has seen maritime/commercial interactions between East Asia and West Asia since at least the Roman era, and probably long before. I put into that piece many of my favorite maps of the Indian Ocean trading system over the centuries, so I hope you can enjoy them! Here is one:

Map from Janet Abu-Lughod’s “Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250–1350.”

Of particular note in that historical survey: The voyages of the brilliant (Muslim) Chinese admiral Zheng He, who in the early decades of the 15th century CE assembled and led seven massive naval expeditions around the Indian Ocean’s shores. Indeed, on the voyage he undertook 1413–15, he took a foray through the Bab el-Mandeb and into the Red Sea.

I noted in that essay that those Chinese “treasure fleets” were vast in their scale, far far larger than the four tiny Portuguese boats that in 1498 carefully nosed their way around the southern tip of Africa, marking the first ever entry into the Indian Ocean’s by West European mariners. (Over the decades that followed, the always very violent Portuguese, Dutch, and British trading companies came to take over all the Idnian Ocean’s major trading routes completely, completely transforming the region’s economy and governance systems…)

In the essay, I cited British historian Roger Crowley who wrote this in his book Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire (p.xx) about the immense scale of Zheng He’s treasure fleets:

The first, in 1405, consisted of some 250 ships carrying twenty-eight thousand men. At its center were the treasure ships: multi-decked, nine-masted junks 440 feet long with innovative watertight buoyancy compartments and immense rudders 450 feet square… The fleets carried sufficient food for a year… and navigated straight across the heart of the Indian Ocean from Malaysia to Sri Lanka, with compasses and calibrated astronomical plates carved in ebony. The treasure ships were known as star rafts, powerful enough to voyage even to the Milky Way…..

The voyages of the star rafts were nonviolent techniques for projecting the magnificence of China to the coastal states of India and East Africa. There was no attempt at military occupation, nor any hindrance to the area’s free-trade system…

Anyway, do go read that whole essay. (And enjoy the maps there.)

The other relevant item of my (recent) past production was this appearance I made on January 24 in the great series of webinars/podcasts that the Electronic Intifada has been presenting on the Gaza crisis. In my 22-minute segment there, I talked some about broad region-wide fallout from the Gaza crisis, which has led to confrontation between outposts of the U.S.-Israeli alliance and its opponents in six separate sub-theaters: in Gaza, at the Israel-Lebanon border, in Syria, Iraq, with the Houthis, and in the Red Sea itself. (Actually, I meant the Persian Gulf as that sixth sub-theater. That is where the U.S. Navy sits facing off directly against Iran. Sorry about that…)

As of last Sunday, however, a seventh sub-theater of this region-wide conflict emerged when a U.S. military base in the northeast of Jordan, at the confluence of the Iraq-Syria-Jordan borders, was struck by a drone attack that killed three soldiers and wounded dozens more.

That drone attack thrust Pres. Biden, and the U.S. power projection system more broadly, into a large-scale crisis. This was the first of the many clashes that had occurred in the West Asian sub-theaters since October 7 in which U.S. service-members were killed. Given that this is an election year here in the United States, voices from the Trump/GOP opposition immediately arose accusing Biden of weakness and urging him to respond harshly. Doing so in any effective way is not, however, easy. Plus: any counter-action that Biden orders could easily explode not just the entirety of all the other regional sub-theaters but beyond that some aspects of the global system itself.

Stay tuned. As has been demonstrated in the Red Sea over the course of some weeks now, it turns out that U.S. “gunboat diplomacy” is not nearly as powerful or as politically effective as it long was…

Originally published at on January 30, 2024.



Helena Cobban

Veteran analyst of global affairs, w/ some focus on West Asia. Pres., Just World Educational. Writes at