International shipping meets geopolitics

International shipping meets geopolitics
Houthi fighters and tribesmen stage a rally against the U.S. and the U.K. strikes on Houthi-run military sites near Sanaa, Yemen, on Sunday, Jan. 14, 2024. - Copyright AP Photo

Houthi rebels in Yemen have been targeting shipping going through the Red Sea ever since Israel started its military campaign in Gaza, in what they claim is a show of solidarity with the Palestinians. More specifically, the Iranian-backed rebel group are targeting shipping linked to Israel, the United States, and the United Kingdom.

Due to the way the shipping industry is built, however, it is not easy to identify the owner of a ship. The Financial Times cites the example of a recent ship carrying fertiliser from Saudi Arabia to Bulgaria, which was sunk by the Houthis.

While the rebel group claimed that the ship was 'British', it "flew the flag of Belize, was partly managed by a Beirut-based ship management company, was on a voyage organised by another Lebanese operator and had a mostly Syrian crew". The only link to the UK was an address for the ship's owner, which is a company based in the Marshall Islands.

A lot of ships are registered with states that are often different to where the owner resides or has citizenship. This is known as 'a flag of convenience', which subjects the ship to maritime laws on taxation, safety and labour laws of the country of registration. Finding the owner of a ship is even harder if the owner is a shell company located offshore.

A good book to read on this issue is 'Dead in the Water: A True Story of Hijacking, Murder, and a Global Maritime Conspiracy', which covers the real life case of the oil tanker 'Brillante Virtuoso', and the murder of a maritime surveyor who found anomalies on a tanker that was supposedly attacked by Somali pirates.