The Houthis open a mysterious world to the nationality of ships

When the Houthis in Yemen attacked a ship carrying 21,000 tons of fertilizer from Saudi Arabia to Bulgaria last month, they had a simple justification: they said the Rubimar was a “British ship.”

But the Rubimare ship, which sank on Saturday, was flying a Belizean flag, was partly managed by a Beirut-based ship management company, and was on a voyage organized by another Lebanese company whose crew was mostly Syrian.

Its only clear link to the UK is that maritime databases give a flat in Southampton, England – in a nondescript apartment block called Webb Court – as the address of the ship's owner. However, this owner is a company called Golden Adventure registered in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean.

A missile that struck the Rubimar near its engine room on February 19 forced the 20-member crew and four security guards to abandon the ship. The ship was chartered by a Saudi commodities company, received its cargo in the United Arab Emirates and was heading to Bulgaria.

The sinking of the ship makes it the first ship to be completely lost as a result of the Houthi campaign off the coast of Yemen. As with other Houthi attacks on commercial ships, the Rubimare incident highlighted the difficulty of determining a ship's nationality and ownership. Many are held through third-party companies whose ultimate ownership has not been announced. Some vessels are chartered or leased to other companies who may take effective control of every aspect of the vessel's operation.

The question of the ship's ownership and nationality is important because the Iran-backed Houthis – who say they are working to support Palestinians in Gaza – have vowed to attack ships linked to Israel, the UK and the US. The Houthis said the strike on Rubimar was also in response to the recent US and British bombing of the Yemeni group's military facilities, after the militants attacked more than 40 ships since November.

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The cargo ship Rubymar sank off the coast of Yemen. This was the first ship to be completely lost as a result of the Houthi campaign off the coast of Yemen © Republic TV/AFP/Getty Images

In the latest attack, on Monday, the Houthis fired two missiles at the MSC Sky II, a container ship operated by the Geneva-based Mediterranean Shipping Company, the world's largest container shipping line. One of the missiles fell and caused minor damage. The Houthis described the ship as Israeli, while the US military and others described it as Swiss.

Ship ownership and nationality defy easy categorization, said Peter Aylott, policy director at the British Chamber of Shipping, a lobby group, adding that shipping companies have long used discretion to choose which flag their ships fly.

The majority of ships sailing internationally are registered in countries such as Panama, Marshall Islands or Liberia which offer a low-cost, low-bureaucracy service providing the basic registration processes and safety checks required by international maritime regulations.

Shipowning companies are often incorporated in a country other than the country in which their ships fly the flag. Ships also have the choice of classification societies – companies that ensure on behalf of insurers that ships meet appropriate technical and safety standards.

“You can choose where you integrate,” Aylott said. “You can choose where you fly your flag. You can choose from different rating societies. You can insure from anyone.”

Map showing the complex nationality of the Rubimare cargo ship that was sunk by the Houthis and has contacts in Belize, the UK, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the Marshall Islands

There is no detailed public information about Golden Adventure's ownership of Rubymar and there was no response to a phone call to the Southampton apartment linked to the company.

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However, offshore websites showed that aspects of ship management were carried out by GMZ Ship Management, based in Beirut. The flight was organized by Blue Fleet Group, another Beirut-based company.

Roy Khoury, CEO of Blue Fleet Group, told the Financial Times in an email that the company was the “exclusive broker” for the shipowner, meaning Blue Fleet handles commercial arrangements such as finding work for the ship.

Khoury denied that the ship had any connection to the United Kingdom. “The Houthis had wrong data,” he wrote. “Even the crew is Syrian.”

But for the Houthis, such complex arrangements are evidence of their opponents' cunning. In a video posted online last month, the movement's leader, Abdul-Malik al-Houthi, celebrated the attacks on ships, which he described as “American” and “British.”

One was Morning Tide, a Barbados-flagged bulk carrier but owned by a British-registered company. The other plane was the Star Nasia, which was flying a Marshall Islands flag but owned by Star Bulk, a Greece-based company listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange in New York.

In a clear reference to the popularity of the Marshall Islands flag among American shipowners, Al-Houthi said that the Americans were trying to camouflage their movements at sea and placed on some of their ships “the Marshall flag of a mysterious country.” A country at the end of the world.

However, there is little possibility that international shipping will simplify its arrangements. George Macheras, head of shipping at Watson Farley & Williams, a London-based shipping law firm, said it was “in the DNA” of the sector to use ownership structures not tied to an individual country.

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The Marlin Luanda oil tanker caught fire southeast of Aden after a missile attack by Houthi fighters in January.
The Marlin Luanda oil tanker caught fire southeast of Aden after a missile attack by Houthi fighters in January. © Ipress/Reuters Connect

Issues regarding a ship's nationality can be complex even when the facts are clearer than they were in the Rubimare case. The worst damage the Houthis inflicted on any ship before the Rubimare was on board the tanker Marilyn Luanda, which suffered a severe fire after a missile attack on January 26. The Houthis also described that ship as British.

However, the vessel, flying a Marshall Islands flag, was on an “open boat” company of Trafigura, an international commodity trading company founded in Singapore. Under bareboat charters, charterers take responsibility for the crew and other operational matters.

The Marlin Luanda Hotel is owned by a group of international investors through a company registered in one of the bank's offices in London, because the investors obtained advice from the American investment bank JP Morgan.

Macheras noted that, by some measures, almost every ship at sea was connected to the United States or the United Kingdom. “The majority of trading is done in US dollars, so you already have a clear connection to the US,” he said. “The majority of ships are insured in the London market. So you already have a link in the UK as well.

Ilott said the long-term question is whether the Houthis will stop or continue their attacks even after any future ceasefire in Gaza.

Macheras said many shipowners will feel vulnerable until the attacks stop completely, due to the Houthis' unpredictable tactics and the ambiguity surrounding the ships' nationalities.

“When the Houthis come out and say, ‘We will target ships from countries X, Y, and Z,’” [it is] He added that it is difficult to determine which ships fall into these categories.

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