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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Why Hodeidah must be liberated

The port is crucial to restoring the legitimate government’s control over the country

The battle for the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah will be the biggest battle of the three-year civil war since the Iran-backed Houthi rebels ousted the internationally-recognised government from the capital, Sanaa, and captured swathes of the country’s northern areas.

More importantly, the liberation of the city from its Houthi hold will open up deliveries to the country gripped in a humanitarian crisis. The country relies on food and fuel deliveries by seaport but the Houthis have controlled this vital access point for years.

As observers have noted, the strengthening of government-held ports has only benefited fuel imports and especially consumer goods. The same will be true of Hodeidah once it is back in Yemeni hands.

The port is crucial to restoring the legitimate government’s control over the country. It is Yemen's largest and the entry point for 90 per cent of its food imports and most of the humanitarian aid sent to the country. The city borders some of the most strategic Houthi-held areas and serves as the supply hub for tens of thousands of rebels, including those fighting in southern Yemen.

Houthis have maintained control over Hodeidah since the rebel overthrow of the government in 2015, and have used the port in other ways than for humanitarian purposes.

In 2015, the Saudi-led Arab coalition supporting the government found that the Iran-backed rebels were using the Red Sea port to smuggle in weapons sent by Tehran, and destroyed much of the facility in response.

Securing Yemen’s largest port city would protect international trade from the threat of Houthi disruption. For instance, in 2016, a UN-chartered ship carrying humanitarian aid was forced to turn back after coming under Houthi fire.

Hodeidah provides access to – and potentially control of – the Bab Al Mandeb strait between the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea.

Providing the fastest route from Europe to Asia, the Bab Al Mandeb waterway is 30 kilometres wide at its narrowest, making the trade route vulnerable to attacks.

Bab Al Mandeb, which translates to “Gate of Tears,” is the fourth busiest shipping choke-point in the world. More than four million barrels of oil pass through daily.

Last month, a Saudi oil tanker came under attack from Houthi naval forces in the waterway.

Control of Hodeidah would also provide a strategic base from which to launch a campaign to recapture Sanaa, less than a day’s drive from the coastal city.

The Arab Coalition says recapturing Hodeidah would provide an opportunity to provide much needed humanitarian aid ahead of a possible second cholera outbreak.

Last year, more than a million residents of the Arab world's poorest country contracted the water-borne disease. It was the worst cholera outbreak in recent history, with more than 2,000 killed.

Capturing Hodeidah city has proved difficult because of the protection offered to the rebels by the mountains and wadis surrounding it. But, as Yemeni and coalition forces close in on the Houthis holed up in the city, an important victory lies on the horizon.