South24 Center

The History of Piracy in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden (1800-2024): Motives and Ramifications


Mon, 25-03-2024 08:11 PM, Aden

Research paper (South24)

A recently-published research paper calls for a new and effective strategy to confront the maritime assaults and for drafting a more comprehensive vision to deal with the attacks by the Houthi militia in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. This includes providing the Yemeni Internationally- Recognized Government with military, security and economic support and supplying the local forces in South Yemen and the western coast with the necessary support.

The paper, issued by ‘South24 Center’ on March 9, - The original version is in Arabic - says that this vision should stem from a perspective that does not depend on the outcomes alone but addresses the root of the problem as well as the reasons and circumstances that have created or facilitated the emergence of these threats.

The research paper examines the most prominent piracy operations and military attacks by countries and non-state groups in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden over the past three centuries. These include attacks carried out by non-state groups such as the Iran-backed Houthis of Yemen, the Somali pirates, the Al-Qaeda, and even goes back to the times of the European pirates, as well as the recent involvement of national states such as Iran and Israel.

Moreover, the paper, prepared by a team specializing in security and armed groups affairs, explores the motives behind these activities and their evolution as well as the development of their tools and the responses to them. It highlights the negative impact of piracy and attacks against vessels on international trade as well as the local, regional, and global economy, in addition to the security, stability, and investment opportunities in the region.

The paper points out that Iran has paved the way for the Houthi war against vessels in the Red Sea by gathering intelligence over the past years. It believes that what is happening now is a part of Tehran’s maritime battle against Israel, with the initial outcome appearing to be in favor of Iran as of now.

The war launched by Israel in Gaza following Hamas’ October 7 attack has provided Iran with the proper camouflage for this phase of operations, according to the paper.

Although the Red Sea has witnessed several incidents of piracy and violent attacks on vessels over the past centuries, the occurrences during late 2023 and early 2024 have been very different.

The paper stresses that the measures taken by the United States haven’t prevented the ongoing Houthi assaults. It notes: “The United States’ response to the Red Sea attacks shows that it is having to deal with a unique threat. This has been indicated by the American gradual response to the Houthis. It began with the establishment of the maritime security coalition ‘Operation Prosperity Guardian’ on December 19, 2023. Following this, the US-led coalition launched six aerial operations against the Shiite group in Yemen with an aim to weaken its military capabilities. Later, Washington designated the Houthis as a ‘Specially Designated Global Terrorist group’.

Nevertheless, the Houthis have continued with their attacks in the Red Sea. They have even expanded their circle of operations to reach the Gulf of Aden in the Arabian Sea.

According to the paper, “Washington probably didn't expect such persistent and audacious attacks by the Houthis in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, as can be seen from its random responses. It appears that Washington has been taken aback by the unproductive outcomes of its operations”. US officials said that “the Houthis are the first entity in the history of the world to use anti-ship ballistic missiles against shipping”. The paper says that “the outcomes of the American response have been so far very frustrating”.

The Houthis “carry out their attacks in the Red Sea under a convenient moral cover, citing the Palestine cause that touches the sentiments of millions of Arabs and Muslims”. Through this, they basically aim to “embellish their image among local residents who are subjected to poverty and repression, especially in the areas controlled by the group in North Yemen”, according to the research paper. 


Piracy has witnessed a remarkable transformation in terms of motives, goals, and methods used. In the past, piracy was mainly driven by seeking for spoils and looting. However, today it has become more relevant to the extremist armed groups and organized crime as well as in the conflict for global influence.

The latest Houthi operations in the Red and Arabian Seas are different from the previous piracy and other sea skirmishes over the past centuries, at more than one level. The Houthi actions have been accompanied by serious threats that threaten the region's maritime stability and water security as well as the long-term national and international strategic projects. Additionally, clear challenges have emerged to combating the Houthis, including the ability to confront their assaults and deter them, in comparison to the measures taken against piracy operations in the past.

The counter-piracy strategies have largely evolved over the last three centuries. In the past, the ships basically depended on the armed guards for protection. Currently the measures include a more comprehensive approach that combines international efforts, regional cooperation, and economic and political sanctions.

The persistent Houthi operations in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden have highlighted the need for a new and effective global strategy to fight such maritime attacks. There is a need to draft a more comprehensive vision to deal with these attacks from a perspective that does not depend on the outcomes alone but addresses the root of the problem as well as the reasons and circumstances that have created or facilitated the emergence of these threats or those that enable such proxy groups to become what they have turned into today.

At the community level, the danger of these (Houthi) operations lies in the fact that those behind them invent new methods to justify their motives. This includes exploiting the humanitarian issues (Gaza) that are deeply linked with the sentiments and awareness of the local communities. Instead of helping resolve the issue, the international bodies adopt biased, futile, and duplicitous positions toward these issues. 

Piracy continues to be a menace to maritime security and international trade, especially in light of their increasing use of high-tech and dangerous weapons, and the diversity and sophistication of their attacks. 

Countering piracy faces several challenges, such as the vulnerability of the coastal countries, the rise in poverty among their people, climate change, and the pirates' recent transformation into becoming part of the current conflict’s agenda in the region, as is seen in the case of the Yemeni Houthis.

In light of the development and diversity of the attacks witnessed in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden over the past years, it can be suggested that Iran has prepared the ground in the region for a phase of global maritime escalation, in which the Houthi involvement has become an outcome, not a reason.


The research paper proposes some recommendations to the relevant parties. The most prominent of them include the following:

There is a need to strengthen international cooperation to combat piracy, through the exchange of intelligence information and coordination of military efforts. This includes an active and extensive involvement of the influential Arab countries in the process of securing the navigation route in the Red and Arabian Seas. 

Providing support to the coastal states to build their maritime capabilities and enhance the rule of law in their territories. It is remarkable that the Yemeni Internationally-Recognized Government and the armed forces in South Yemen or the western coast haven’t so far received any relevant support and haven’t been assigned any task. This is despite the calls by members of the Presidential Leadership Council - the executive body of the internationally recognized government - for this. 

There is a need to treat the root causes behind piracy, such as poverty and unemployment, through economic and social development programs and by promoting stability and sustainable development. This is in addition to serious and urgent work to end internal conflicts in a drastic and fair manner.

In the Yemeni case, there is a need for delivering logistics, intelligence, and training support to the Yemeni government to complete its control over the areas that are currently under Houthi control in North Yemen. This is in addition to avoiding the failed policies of Washington and Western countries in the Yemeni crisis that have increased the Houthi threat against maritime navigation, which occurred after they got control of the Port of Al-Hodeida in the Red Sea, thanks to the Stockholm Agreement of 2018. 

In terms of an urgent mechanism and long-pending solution, the local security and military forces in the South and West of Yemen should be supplied with sophisticated defense systems to intercept the ballistic missiles and drones fired over the skies of South Yemen toward the Gulf of Aden and Bab Al-Mandab. 

There is no one magical solution to lessen the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea. There is a need to use a mix of military, political, and economic solutions such as:

- Supporting the Yemeni forces by providing logistic, military, and training support to confront the Houthi threat.

- Pressuring Iran by imposing effective sanctions to stop it from delivering support to the Houthis, including by way of supplying them with weapons, missiles, and drone spare parts as well as other forms of support.

- Pressuring the Houthis by synchronizing punitive military measures with political and legal actions.

- Addressing the Yemeni crisis by finding a comprehensive solution that would end the war and solve the main issue in a fair way, in addition to enhancing the impression of the state and institutions. 

- The problem of Houthi attacks in the Red Sea can’t be resolved without solving the Yemeni crisis in general.

- The solutions to the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden crisis should be comprehensive and sustainable to guarantee the long-term stability of these vital waterways. 

- South24 Center for News and Studies

- The full paper in English can be downloaded in PDF format (here)

YemenRed SeaHouthisRubymarEnvironmental disasterPiracyGulf of AdenGulf of OmanSouth Yemen