The tensions spilling over from the war in Gaza to merchant shipping in the Red Sea escalated on Saturday when Britain said that one of its warships had shot down a suspected attack drone.
The Houthis, an armed group that controls much of northern Yemen, have been staging drone and missile assaults on Israeli and American targets since the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attacks on Israel. They have said they intend to prevent Israeli ships from sailing the Red Sea until Israel stops its war on Hamas, which rules Gaza. Both the Houthis and Hamas, like Hezbollah in Lebanon, are backed by Iran.
The shipping industry was also bracing for potential economic fallout as the Red Sea, a vital sea lane, is increasingly drawn into the regional unrest.
Britain’s defense secretary, Grant Shapps, said on Saturday that the British warship HMS Diamond had shot down a suspected attack drone targeting merchant shipping in the Red Sea overnight. “The recent spate of illegal attacks represent a direct threat to international commerce and maritime security,” he said in a statement. “The U.K. remains committed to repelling these attacks to protect the free flow of global trade.”
Also on Saturday, the Houthi militia claimed to have launched a number of attack drones toward the Israeli Red Sea port of Eilat. Nir Dinar, an Israeli military spokesman, said he could not confirm that claim.
The Egyptian state news media reported that its forces had shot down a drone off the coast of Dahab, a beach town on the Gulf of Aqaba roughly 90 miles south of Eilat. The report did not say where the drone had come from.
The Houthis have launched attacks on Eilat several times during the Gaza war, and the arrival of commercial ships in the city, a major port, has come to an almost complete halt.
This past week, the Houthis hit a Norwegian tanker bound for Italy with a cruise missile. The group’s fighters also hijacked another commercial vessel in November and are still holding 25 of its crew members. A Houthi spokesman, Yahya Sarea, said the group had carried out its most recent attacks in solidarity with the Palestinian people to protest the “killing, destruction and siege” in Gaza.
In recent weeks, the United States has been in discussions with its allies to establish a naval task force to protect maritime traffic through the region, which Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, has compared to similar missions off the coast of Somalia to protect vessels from pirates. John F. Kirby, the White House national security spokesman, said on Friday that the United States was working with maritime forces to bolster security in the region.
The unrest in the region led two major shipping companies, Hapag-Lloyd and Maersk, to temporarily stop sending vessels through the Red Sea on Friday, threatening to add costly weeks to the journey of any goods carried on their vessels.
“It’s very dangerous what the Houthis are doing,” said John Stawpert, a maritime security expert at the International Chamber of Shipping. “These are missiles and drone attacks, and they are a threat to human life.”
The escalating Houthi attacks have implications beyond the region because the Red Sea links Europe and Asia and is connected to the Mediterranean Sea through the Suez Canal, a linchpin of the global supply chain. The International Chamber of Shipping, a trade group, said on Friday that 12 percent of global trade passed through the Red Sea.
Shipping industry groups are echoing the concerns.
The International Chamber of Shipping described recent Houthi attacks on seafarers and merchant ships as “extremely serious threat to international trade” in a statement on Friday. It added that some companies had already rerouted shipping around the Cape of Good Hope on Africa’s southern tip.
Mr. Stawpert said the financial impact of these disruptions was not yet clear, but that consumers should expect to see “a knock-on effect on the cost of goods,” because avoiding the Red Sea would add two to three weeks to any journey.
“Any increase in the sailing time of a ship will have a financial impact,” Mr. Stawpert said. “The other impact we have seen are insurance rates for shipping going through the Red Sea have risen.”
Two groups representing shipowners and seafarers in Europe also said on Friday that they were “deeply concerned by the recent surge in attacks” against commercial vessels in the region. The groups — the European Community Shipowners’ Associations and the European Transport Workers’ Federation — called for “immediate action to urgently address this alarming situation.”