🌍 US coalition strikes Houthis in Yemen

Plus: 2023 was the hottest year on record

Hi Intriguer. All eyes will be on the Taiwan presidential election this weekend, where ~20 million eligible voters (one million of them first-time voters) will head to the polls. I’ll be watching to see how the outcome will impact the future of US-China relations, and for the spectacle of the election itself (which some folks have likened to a “circus at the Super Bowl”).

It was an eventful day in the Middle East yesterday. We’ve got some thoughts on what the US-led airstrikes against the Houthi rebels might mean for the region.

P.S. I’ll be flying the Intrigue flag at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, next week, where world leaders, civil society, and private institutions (plus the hangers on) tackle global issues under the 2024 theme of ‘Rebuilding Trust’. As usual, we’ll bring you the tea.  

- Helen Zhang, Co-Founder

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TODAY’S NEWS

South Africa makes its case against Israel. Yesterday, South Africa addressed the UN’s top court (ICJ), arguing that Israel’s military actions in Gaza violated the 1948 Genocide Convention and sought a court order to halt hostilities. Israel, which denies the allegations, will respond today. In related news, the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced it would include attacks against journalists in its war crimes investigation in Gaza.

Sunak visits Ukraine bearing gifts. British PM Rishi Sunak made a surprise visit to Kyiv, where he announced the UK would provide Ukraine with £2.5B of military aid, including drones, long-range missiles, and artillery shells in the coming year. Senior military officials reportedly criticised the decision not to pledge more long-term support.

Chinese deflation worries persist. Consumer prices in China fell for a third month in December, whilst yearly export figures declined for the first time since 2016. The newly released economic data will do little to address worries the world’s second-biggest economy is falling into a deflationary spiral.

Tech giants go neck and neck. Microsoft briefly overtook Apple as the world’s most valuable company on Thursday. Microsoft’s shares have performed well thanks to enthusiasm over the company’s investment in OpenAI.

TOP STORY

An eventful day on the Arabian Peninsula

The HMS Diamond fires Sea Viper missiles in the Red Sea. (Photo provided by UK Ministry of Defence, Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024)

There have been two significant developments in the Middle East over the past 24 hours.

1. The US and its allies launched military strikes against the Houthi militia in Yemen yesterday.

The airstrikes targeted Houthi sites used to launch missiles and drones, as well as radars and weapons depots, to prevent them from attacking ships in the Red Sea.

The Houthis have been launching attacks against shipping off the coast of Yemen since November in what they say is retaliation for Israel's military actions against Hamas in Gaza. Military analysts said yesterday’s US-led strikes were in response to a large drone and missile attack launched by the Houthis on Tuesday evening.

Interestingly, Bahrain was the only Arab nation to participate in yesterday’s strikes. Neither Saudi Arabia nor the UAE - the two countries most targeted by the Houthis in recent years - were involved.

2. The Iranian military seized an oil tanker carrying Iraqi crude off Oman's coast early yesterday morning.

Earlier on Thursday, masked gunmen boarded the tanker St Nikolas near the Omani port of Sohar and directed it to head towards an Iranian port.

The tanker had previously been seized by the US last April (it was named the Suez Rajan at the time) after it was found carrying 980,000 barrels of sanctioned Iranian oil. The oil was confiscated and later sold by Washington.  

At the time, Iranian authorities vowed to respond in kind, and yesterday’s seizure seems to have made good on that promise.

Iranian state media said that the Iranian navy had boarded a “US oil tanker” (the vessel is, in fact, Greek-owned) in compliance with an Iranian court order that found the ship had “stolen an Iranian oil cargo and handed it over to the US.” 

The United States has demanded the prompt release of the ship and its crew, saying Iran was actively trying to disrupt global trade.

INTRIGUE’S TAKE

😮‍💨 Phew, got all that? Let’s focus on the more consequential of the two (seemingly unrelated) incidents - the US-led air strikes.

Firstly, the strikes are unlikely to achieve their aim of deterring the Houthis - after all, eight years of brutal conflict with Saudi Arabia only seems to have emboldened them.

Secondly, destroying the Houthis’ capability to launch missiles and drones is no easy task. Take a look at this excellent 3D map of Yemen (the Houthis control the northwestern portion of the country, centred around the capital Sana’a).

That topography is nightmare fuel for any military strategist, let alone one planning a limited attack against a highly mobile, battle-hardened militia. And we must assume the Iranians will be only too happy to restock any damaged Houthi merchandise.

The US and its allies are now in a difficult position. They clearly felt they could no longer stand idly by while an Iranian-supported militia brought global shipping to its knees.

But, by striking the Houthis, they’ve implicitly locked themselves into an escalation spiral. If the Houthi attacks continue, the US and its allies will feel obliged to respond again. And if the Houthi attacks escalate… well, let’s cross that bridge when we come to it.

Also worth noting:

  • The Houthis may have made a critical error - upsetting Elon Musk. Tesla’s German plant has been unable to get necessary parts due to shifts in shipping routes to avoid the Red Sea.

  • A Houthi armed drone costs ~$20,000, while the advanced missiles used to shoot them down cost over $1.2M.

  • Oil prices jumped nearly 2% on the news of the US-led strikes.

MEANWHILE, ELSEWHERE…

  1. 🇨🇳 China: US-based AI companies OpenAI, Anthropic, and Cohere held secret backchannel talks with Chinese AI experts from several state-backed institutions last year. The meetings covered sensitive issues around AI’s impact on misinformation and social cohesion - the US, UK, and Chinese governments say they were aware of the meetings.

  2. 🇩🇪 Germany: Chancellor Olaf Scholz condemned a plan discussed by the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party to deport millions of people of ‘non-German’ origin. Polling suggests the AfD is Germany's second most popular party, with around 20% support.

  3. 🇷🇺 Russia: Imprisoned opposition figure Alexei Navalny has appeared on video for the first time since his relocation to a penal colony near Kharp in Russia’s polar north, where temperatures regularly drop below -30C (-22F). Ever the thorn in Putin’s side, Navalny is suing prison authorities for conditions, including mealtimes and the withholding of religious texts.

  4. 🇵🇭 Philippines: Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo stopped in Manila to discuss security and energy cooperation with Philippines President Ferdinand “Bong Bong” Marcos Jr. The visit reportedly focused on protecting the South China Sea against China’s ambitious territorial claims.

  5. 🇧🇮 Burundi: Burundi has closed its borders with Rwanda after accusing it of supporting a rebel attack on 22 December. Interior Minister Martin Niteretse said Rwandan President Paul Kagame was “a bad neighbour… we stopped all relations with him until he returns to better feelings.”

EXTRA INTRIGUE

🔮 Last week, we promised to publish some of your geopolitical predictions for 2024. Here are some of our favourites: 

  • C.S: “Latin American fruit-producing countries are struggling with a second year due to El Nino, a very real risk for emptier supermarkets' fresh produce shelves in Europe, the USA, and further afield.”

  • J.B: “European parliamentary elections will see a lurch to the far right threatening European solidarity towards funding and support for Ukraine.”

  • L.M: “Tensions will continue to rise over which nations can claim sovereignty over extended continental shelf regions in the Arctic.”

  • R.M: “Armenia and Azerbaijan will sign a peace agreement recognizing each other's territorial integrities, but the Zanguezur corridor will remain a contentious issue.”

  • F: “Saudi Arabia and Russia will cut back more oil supplies to increase gas prices during the [US] election season.” 

  • J.P: “Interest rates won't fall by as much as markets are currently forecasting.”

  • N: “At least one country will elect/appoint their first nonbinary, trans, or female leader.”

  • G.S: “The aliens will arrive, and who knows what will happen”?

🙏🏼 Thank you all for your submissions; reading through them was great fun!

CHART OF THE DAY

Credits: New York Times.

Visualising the hottest year ever

According to scientists from the EU’s Copernicus Climate Service, global temperatures were, on average, 1.48℃ (2.66℉) above those recorded in the latter half of the 19th century. 2023 was significantly hotter than 2016, the hottest year before last year.

FRIDAY QUIZ

🍛 Today is a particularly delicious day: International Chicken Curry Day! We hope you celebrate with your favourite kind, perhaps a Chicken Tikka Masala, a Japanese Pork Katsu Curry, or a Thai Green Curry (an Intrigue team fave).

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