The Bab al-Manab Strait is over a thousand miles from the Israeli-made carnage in Gaza, but it nevertheless represents a new front in the war.
This southern entrance to the Red Sea separates Yemen from Ethiopia. At its narrowest it is no wider than the English Channel between Dover and Calais—just 20 miles.
It’s here that Houthi fighters are trying to aid the Palestinians by attacking commercial shipping with a demand on the West to stop Israel’s war.
Britain and the US last week responded by launching dozens of missile strikes against Yemen. At the northernmost point of the Red Sea, Egypt’s Suez Canal links Europe to Africa and Asia.
It is the most important stretch of water in the world and controlling it has been an imperial imperative for well over a century.
Some 12 percent of all global trade, and up to 30 percent of all container traffic, passes through the Bab al-Manab Strait enroute to or from Suez.
And, crucially, about a fifth of the world’s oil tankers also make the journey.
But the growing danger of attacks means the number of container ships at the mouth of the Red Sea was down 90 percent in the first week of January compared with the start of 2023.
During the Christmas holidays, Houthis launched a series of audacious assaults on commercial shipping, using helicopters, explosive drones, gunboats and even anti-ship ballistic missiles.
These moves came despite US promises that its military would patrol the sea to keep it “safe”.
Shipping companies and insurers were shocked and suspended all sailings through the Strait. Four firms together make up more than half of the global container trade.
They announced they would not use the Suez Canal in either direction “until the Red Sea passage is safe”. Vessels will instead be re-routed via South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope.
But that stretches the distance between Chinese manufacturers and European markets by thousands of miles—and weeks at sea—greatly increasing costs.
And the forced change could trigger a far wider shipping crisis.
Re-routing away from Suez reduces the general availability of ships and containers because they are forced to be at sea when they were expected to be in port.
Two weeks of closure of the Suez Canal could delay as much as a quarter of the containers that would normally be in European ports, says shipping analyst Christian Roeloffs.
The economic impact of the shipping problem is already becoming clear.
Firms that import goods from Asia are being hit by a combination of increased fuel costs for shipping, and higher container prices because of scarcity.
And bosses are hoping to make all of us pay for the crisis by upping prices.
The Egyptian economy will suffer because every vessel using Suez pays a toll—and now with little traffic, revenues have plummeted.
In the longer term, a shipping crisis could mean shortages of goods, as supply chains come under pressure. All of this points to a major strategic weakness for imperialism.
As Socialist Worker went to press the US and Britain had launched attacks on Yemen in the hope of hitting Houthi radar and missile bases.
That high risk strategy essentially extends Israel’s war on Palestine further across the region, and will no doubt increase the chance of still further escalation.
But the danger of a wider war isn’t worrying many shipping company bosses. Container prices will continue to soar, as will their owners’ profits.
Shares in Maersk, one of the biggest cargo operators, have already risen by a quarter in the past month.
Prime minister Rishi Sunak justifies Britain’s attacks on Yemen saying that it’s imperative that the West doesn’t give in to Houthi threats.
But when it comes to threats and destruction in the Middle East Britain has no peer.
In 1882 Britain invaded Egypt, beginning with a naval bombardment of the Alexandria that left the city in ruins and thousands of people dead.
The invasion was completed at the battle of Tel al-Kebir where the British lost 57 men while Egyptian fatalities were estimated at between 2,000 and 10,000.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, Britain’s grasp on the Middle East was slipping but it was determined to keep control of Egypt.
It wanted to maintain military bases there, and crucially, keep control of the Suez Canal. To do so, Labour and Tory governments authorised a war on the Egyptian people.
Tory prime minister Winston Churchill raised British troop numbers to 80,000 in a bid to stop independence.
On one occasion he had wanted the Egyptians told that if they gave any more “cheek we will set the Jews on them and drive them into the gutter from which they should never have emerged”.
Eventually, Britain was forced to acknowledge it did not have the military strength to hold Egypt, and eventually ceded control of the wider Red Sea region.
But the Tories were furious when an independent Egypt nationalised the Suez Canal in July 1956.
Tory prime minister, Anthony Eden, wanted troops back in the country and the new president Gamal Abdel Nasser assassinated.
Eden, together with the French government, cooked up a plan to have the Israelis invade Egypt so that the British could land a force under the pretext of stopping the fighting.
The government tried to dress up British aggression as peacekeeping—but it was clear to everyone, both in Egypt and at home, that this was an unprovoked invasion.
The continuing crisis in the Red Sea and Suez will have a massive impact on global manufacturing, and the wider system.
Most productive businesses depend on regular deliveries of parts, as well as raw materials and fuel, produced overseas. If supply chains are interrupted whole operations can grind to a halt.
And with the fastest shipping route to China now compromised that danger is very real.
Increasing fragility in the system is in part the result of a phenomenon that took hold in the 1980s called “just-in-time” production.
Just-in-time was the idea of Taiichi Ohno, an executive for Toyota in Japan in the 1950s.
He defined it as a way of eliminating “waste” —by which he meant component stockpiles, and the workers needed to help store and transport goods to be used later in production.
Instead of using labour time, warehouse space and money buying and storing the bits needed to make a car, each supplier was expected to deliver parts at exactly the moment they were needed on the Toyota production line.
Ohno’s idea first took hold in the Japanese car industry and then spread to manufacturers globally.
Bosses thought little about the environmental impact of shipping parts and raw materials from one side of the world to be turned into finished goods on another.
Delivering products at speed required massive investment in infrastructure, so big firms roped in the state.
Motorways were widened, ports deepened, and extra airport runways were added to keep up with the pace of change.
The effect of all this was two-fold. Slashing costs meant huge profits for the first firms to adopt the new techniques.
Bosses rewarded shareholders in ways that created a huge stock market boom.
Other firms competing in the same market were forced to bring in just-in-time production too if they wanted to stay in business. But the new processes had a tremendous weakness.
Just-in-time meant there was little, or no, slack should any part of a business’ supply chain fail.
That could happen because of a seismic event, such as a major war, an environmental disaster, or because workers in any one part of the chain decided to stop working.
In those cases, it was possible that production would grind to a halt. In the late 1980s most of the left thought new production methods meant the end of factory strikes.
But they were confusing workers’ lack of confidence to fight with a lack of potential power. Just-in-time meant workers in strategically important jobs actually increased in strength.
And major strikes in the car industry during the 1990s and 2000s proved it wasn’t just specialists that could hit back, whole factories could too.
That remains true today. In the US, the United Auto Workers union’s strike last year involved only a small proportion of the total workforce of the big three manufacturers, and then only for a few weeks.
But by acting it reduced the US’s total car production for the year by more than 10 percent and won at least part of their claim.
Bosses’ worries about parts shortages were a part of the union’s success. The pandemic was a bigger warning about the weakness of just‑in-time.
The British government’s failure to secure supplies of protective PPE for health workers was the result of that same system.
Ministers expected simply to be able to order gowns, gloves and masks from manufacturers in China and have them shipped to Britain within days of when they were needed.
They disbanded all the NHS’s storage facilities, deeming them unnecessary “waste”.
Many other countries followed suit. But when the pandemic hit, China was unable to supply the quantities of PPE needed.
Health and care workers in Britain went for weeks without proper safety equipment, with many forced to improvise using bin bags.
Lack of PPE was one reason why Britain had one of the worst Covid death rates of any advanced economy.
We are yet to see the full extent of the crisis in the Red Sea—and the impact it will have on capitalist supply chains.
But the Houthi attacks on shipping and Western missile attacks alert us to the irrational ways in which capitalism is organised.
And the way that system is now unravelling shows us the way the crisis of war, economics and the environment are inextricably linked.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer rushed to offer prime minister Rishi Sunak his support for the British-US bombing in Yemen. And he helped fan the flames of a regional war by denouncing Iran for “sponsoring terrorism”.
Starmer also rolled back on his previous commitment that under a Labour government any military action would have to be authorised by parliament.
In 2020, when running for party leader, he tweeted, “No more illegal wars. Introduce a Prevention of Military Intervention Act and put human rights at the heart of foreign policy. Review all UK arms sales and make us a force for international peace and justice.” He also said Britain “should stop the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia” over concerns about their use in the Yemen.
But last weekend Starmer gave the green light to further attacks, saying, “We must retain the flexibility to react with the necessary speed to threats. The attacks by Houthi rebels on commercial ships in the Red Sea threaten one of the world’s most important trade routes and put the lives of British civilians and military personnel in danger.
“They must stop, and it is right that Britain plays its part, alongside our allies, in deterring these attacks.”
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