Attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea, by Iran-backed Houthi rebels, have had a direct impact on live sheep and cattle exports, creating an animal welfare crisis. A ship carrying around 14,000 sheep and 2,000 cattle was marooned off the Australian coast in sweltering heat after it was forced to abandon its trip through the Red Sea because of the danger of drone or missile strikes.

The live export ship MV Bahijah left Fremantle in Australia on January 5, heading for Jordan, only to be diverted from its intended course two weeks later by threats of attacks by the Houthis. After five weeks at sea, the vessel was ordered to return home by the Australian government. Before the animals could be unloaded again in Australia, they had to be subjected to quarantine restrictions under biosecurity rules.

The alternative, for the exporters, was to send them back to sea for a month-long journey to Jordan around Africa, avoiding the Red Sea. While negotiations proceeded, the animals were left in limbo, docked in Fremantle, in a 44 degrees Celsius heatwave, while the crew waited for a decision from the Australian government.

The suffering of the animals on board the stranded ship has caused an international outcry among animal welfare supporters who oppose such live exports. Australia sends hundreds of thousands of live sheep and cattle to the Middle East annually.

Even during routine journeys through the Suez Canal, the animals endure long and arduous voyages, crammed into pens in intense heat with limited access to water, food, and veterinary services. Casualty rates during such voyages are high. These are the lucky ones.

READ MORE: Labour can't fix broken Britain. That's why indy is a must

Those that survive to be unloaded in the Middle East face a wretched fate in grisly abattoirs, where their throats are cut without pre-stunning. An even worse fate awaits sheep shipped to Kuwait, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and other countries in the Middle East, during the festival of Eid al-Adha or the "Festival of Sacrifice". In the course of this festival, locals can buy trussed-up sheep to transport home in the back of their cars, where the animals experience fear, pain and suffering as they are cruelly slaughtered in backyards and side streets. The local Fremantle Labour MP, Josh Wilson, has launched a bitter attack on Australia’s live-export industry stating: "This is a trade that over, and over, and over again has produced animal welfare atrocities."

In recent years, the disposal of sheep and cattle that die onboard these live-export vessels has involved throwing their carcases into the Red Sea. This, in turn, has attracted hungry sharks which feed on the decomposing remains. When there is a lengthy gap with no live-export vessels passing through the Red Sea, the sharks search for other food sources. In 2022 this led to Egyptian authorities closing some of the most popular tourist beaches after two women were killed by sharks. A 68-year-old Austrian woman had an arm and leg torn off by a Mako shark while snorkelling close to the shore at the popular resort of Sahl Hasheesh. She was taken to hospital where she died. Less than a kilometre away, the body of another woman, a Romanian tourist in her 40s, was found separately after also being attacked by a shark.

Similar lethal attacks, although infrequent, have occurred in the past. In 2010 the beaches at the Red Sea resort of Sharm E-Sheikh, in Egypt, had to be closed, following a wave of five attacks in five days that killed a 70-year-old German woman and injured four other foreign tourists. Another German tourist was killed by a shark in the same area in 2015 and in 2018, a Czech tourist was killed by a shark while swimming. A 12-year-old Ukrainian male tourist lost his arm and leg in an attack in 2020. Now that Houthi drone and missile strikes have diverted commercial shipping, like the Australian sheep and cattle vessels, away from the Red Sea, it is feared that there is an increasing likelihood of renewed shark attacks along the coastal resorts.

The Herald: RAF planes bombed the regionRAF planes bombed the region (Image: free)

Consolidating their pariah status, the Iranian mullahs are openly backing and directing the ongoing drone and missile attacks on commercial shipping by the Yemen-based Houthi rebels. The Houthis are an extremist Shi’ite movement, heavily armed and trained by the Quds force, the extra-territorial wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

As well as Iran, the Houthis count amongst their allies the usual suspects of Russia, North Korea, and Syria, all of whom see benefits in disrupting global trade. Recent satellite pictures have identified the Khamenei Academy of Naval Sciences and Technology, in Ziba Kenar on the northern Iranian coast, as a training ground for hundreds of Houthi recruits. Since 2020, IRGC and Quds force personnel have used the campus to train the Houthis on drone attacks and other naval warfare techniques to use against Israeli, British and American ships in the Red Sea.

The US and UK have responded by sending warships and deploying aircraft to the zone, launching retaliatory missile strikes on Houthi and Iranian-backed proxies in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. But so far, Western reprisals have failed to deter the Houthis, who claim their onslaught is in support of Palestinians in Gaza, in the Israel Hamas conflict.

The British Foreign Secretary – David Cameron – was in Oman on 30 January to discuss the Houthi targeting of commercial shipping and its impact on global trade. Meanwhile President Biden ordered attacks with long-range bombers on IRGC and associated militia targets in Syria and Iraq, in retaliation for a drone strike that killed 3 American troops in Jordan on 28 January. Biden blamed Iran for the attack.

READ MORE: Humza Yousaf should try holidaying in Scotland after Qatar

The on-going drone and missile strikes have forced thousands of ships to abandon their main maritime route between Europe and Asia through the Suez Canal, diverting them around the African coast, adding costly travel time and impacting on global trade. If there can be any silver lining to this gloomy scenario, it could be that the stranding of the live-sheep and cattle vessel in Fremantle may finally convince the Australians to abandon the cruel export of livestock to the Middle East once and for all.

Struan Stevenson represented Scotland in the European Parliament from 1999 to 2014. He was Vice President of the European People’s Party/European Democrats (EPP/ED) Group 2004-2009 and Chairman of the Fisheries Committee. He is an Honorary Member of the British Veterinary Association.