21 November 2023

3 min read

Bracing for escalation in the Middle East: unpacking the Galaxy Leader seizure

Geopolitical analysis
Cargo ship on the red sea HAMAS offensive

On 19 November, Yemen-based Houthi militants seized Galaxy Leader, a cargo vessel travelling from Turkey to India in the southern Red Sea, citing the ship’s suspected Israeli affiliation. The incident followed Houthi leader Abdulmalik Al Houthi’s warning on 14 November that his forces would target any Israeli ships in the Red Sea in response to Israel's counteroffensive against Hamas.


Despite reports that the UK company that owns the Japanese-operated vessel is ultimately owned by an Israeli businessman, the incident has been cited as the first significant contagion of the conflict beyond Gaza, and, with Israeli authorities denying Galaxy Leader’s alleged links to the country, the attack further highlights the growing vulnerability to all merchant vessels transiting the area amid the current hostilities. This has raised the question of whether we will see imminent regional escalation in the conflict and what it may mean for commercial operators in the region.


So, does the incident point to regional escalation?

In isolation, the seizure does not present a major escalation in the conflict. However, it undeniably adds a new (maritime) dimension to the crisis. With the attack taking place just days after Abdulmalik Al Houthi’s warning, it demonstrates the group’s committed solidarity for Hamas. International authorities had already taken the Houthi threat seriously, and on 16 November, the International Maritime Security Construct issued a warning to shipping companies regarding “a heightened threat level in the Red Sea.”


Yet, the Houthis have long had the capabilities to target vessels in Bab-el-Mandeb strait and, although targeting a merchant vessel, this is not the first assault by Iran-back proxies in the region since the 7 October Hamas attack. In recent weeks, there have been a spate of attacks against US and Israeli military and government interests in Syria and Iraq and these are likely to continue or indeed intensify as the Gaza crisis worsens. The critical point will be to consider at what point these seemingly sporadic attacks become coordinated and evident of a more sustained regional proxy-led war. Until then, however, what the seizure Galaxy Leader does tells us is that targets in this conflict are no longer confined to military interests or those overtly linked to Israel.


Are commercial operators at greater risk?

Following the Galaxy Leader attack, it is clear that merchant vessels are now viewed by some threat actors as credible targets. This will add to the nervousness of both shipping insurers and operators in the region, leading to likely higher freight costs and potential supply-driven delays. But, if this is indeed a new state of play in the crisis – one that will see regular disruptions along key maritime corridors – longer term impacts such as supply chain disruptions, energy price volatility and associated financial market shocks will grow. Organisations can therefore ill afford to ignore the subtle shifts in the conflict and what they may mean for global operations.

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