Red Sea attacks force rerouting of vessels, disrupting supply chains
FILE PHOTO: The Galaxy Leader cargo ship is escorted by Houthi boats in the Red Sea in this photo released November 20, 2023. Houthi Military Media/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

DUBAI: Mounting attacks by the Iran-aligned Yemeni Houthi militant group on ships in the Red Sea are disrupting maritime trade as leading global freight firms reroute around the Cape of Good Hope to avoid the Suez Canal.

Multiple "projectiles" were fired from Houthi-controlled territory on Monday (Dec 18) at a vessel in the southern Red Sea, US officials said.

The Houthi movement has launched a series of missile and drone attacks on ships in the area, which it says are a response to Israel's assault on the Gaza Strip.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the latest attack.

Several major freight companies - including MSC and Maersk - have begun to sail around Africa, adding costs and delays which are expected to be compounded over the coming weeks, according to industry analysts. About 15 per cent of world shipping traffic transits via the Suez Canal, the shortest shipping route between Europe and Asia.

Combined, the companies that have diverted vessels "control around half of the global container shipping market", ABN Amro analyst Albert Jan Swart told Reuters.

"Avoiding the Red Sea will lead to higher costs due to longer travel time."

British energy giant BP on Monday said it had joined other companies in suspending transits through the Red Sea.

"In light of the deteriorating security situation for shipping in the Red Sea, BP has decided to temporarily pause all transits," a statement said.

"We will keep this precautionary pause under ongoing review, subject to circumstances as they evolve in the region," it added.

BP said "safety and security" of staff was "priority".

The war between Israel and Hamas, which began on Oct 7, has sent shockwaves through the region and drawn in the United States and its allies on one side and Iran-backed paramilitary groups in the Middle East on the other, threatening to cause a broader conflict.

The shipping attacks have prompted the United States and its allies to discuss a task force that would protect Red Sea routes, a move that US and Israeli arch-foe Tehran has warned would be a mistake.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Monday arrived for talks in the region.

Rico Luman, an analyst at ING, said the diversions were adding at least a week of sailing time for container liners. Typically, shipping goods from Shanghai to Rotterdam takes around 27 days via the Suez Canal.

"This will at least lead to delays in late December, with knock-on effects in January and probably February as the next round will also be delayed," Luman said.

While freight rates will likely increase on these longer voyages too, carriers at the moment are seeking ways to utilize excess capacity, said Zvi Schreiber, CEO of global freight platform Freightos.

"It is unlikely that rates will spike to levels experienced during the pandemic," said Schreiber, referring to the economic effects of COVID-19 from 2020.

Shipping stocks rose across European exchanges in morning trading on Monday after a jump on Friday on bets the shift away from the Suez Canal could boost rates. Maersk rose 3.5 per cent in early trade in Copenhagen, before paring some of those gains.

The Suez Canal is an important source of foreign currency for Egypt. About 90 per cent of world trade is transported by sea.

The International Chamber of Shipping said on Friday that the Houthi assault on shipping lanes, which began last month, was an "extremely serious threat to international trade" and urged naval forces in the area to do all they can to stop the attacks.