Danger in the Red Sea: Who Shall the Houthis Let Pass?


Peter Zeihan’s Risk List: What Keeps a Geopolitical Strategist Up at Night

Please join Peter Zeihan for a webinar on June 5th at 12:00 PM EST on a topic that is near and dear to the hearts of the Zeihan on Geopolitics team: geopolitical risk. This webinar will feature Peter’s reasonable-fear list, focused on issues that in his opinion have the most potential to impact market outcomes.

It’s time for an update on the situation in the Red Sea and what the Houthis have been up to as of late. Spoiler alert: most of the ships are taking the longer route around Africa, but there’s a handful still navigating this region.

When people start attacking ships and demanding extortion money, the smart thing to do is avoid that area. However, there are a few exceptions. Oil tankers – mostly originating from Arab countries – have been largely left alone by the Houthis to avoid global backlash. Russian cargo ships coming from the Black Sea have also been given the green light by the Houthis thanks to relations with end destination countries like Iran.

Finally, we have the Chinese container ships. The Chinese have opted to pay the protection money (after being targeted the first few times) and are granted passage as part of a protection racket. So, if you don’t fall into one of these boats, you’ll likely be heading around Africa for the foreseeable future.

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Hey everybody. Peter Zeihan here, coming to you from just outside of Cassis, France. I am going to do a quick update on what’s going on in the Red sea with the Houthis right now. as you guys all remember, the Houthis were the group in Yemen who decided to show solidarity with the Palestinians. They decided to, start shooting everyone who happened to sail by and demanding extortion money, because that that’s what it means to be supportive, I guess. 

Anyway, it’s kind of fallen off the radar in the last month. I want to give you an update of what’s going on. it’s still in play. The ships are still being attacked. The reason that you’re not hearing as much about it is most ships are simply avoiding the area now and doing the very, very long sail around Africa. 

Now, of the vessels that are getting through, they fall into three general categories. Number one, oil tankers, for the most part, are not being affected. Why? Well, most of the oil tankers are sailing from Arab countries, and the Houthis ultimately have to get their support from somewhere. And yes, yes, yes, Iran is their primary backer, but they know that if they start going after oil shipments, the whole world brings a bag of hammers down on them. 

And so they’re just avoiding that overall completely. the second category are cream ships and Bofors in general coming from the Black Sea. Now the vast majority of those are going to be Russian ships and the vast majority of those are going to either Iran or India. So the Houthis, who take many of their marching orders from the Iranians, are not going after the, cargo of their patrons. 

And then the third category is container ships that are specifically Chinese flagged. all other container ships, which are the more valuable ships on the seas are avoiding the area completely. And if you think back, the world’s container ships are typically either operated, by the United Arab Emirates, by the Danes, or by the Chinese. Well, the Danes and the United Arab Emirates have basically pulled their ships out of the area. 

That leaves the Chinese. And of several weeks ago, with the Houthis very specifically target a series of Chinese vessels all in one day. And the Chinese agreed to pay them protection money. So this is definitely evolved away from anything strategic or anything political into a pure protection racket. And that is where we stand right now. All right, everyone, take care. 

Geopolitics of Terror Groups: ISIS and ISIS Khorasan

With the recent attack on Moscow, I received some requests to do a breakdown on the geopolitics of ISIS. First things first, there are two largely unaffiliated groups at play here – ISIS-Khorasan and the more widely known, ISIS.

The original ISIS (aka the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) primarily operates in the middle Fertile Crescent region. In recent years ISIS has not done well, losing control over all the territory it once controlled, being reduced to little more than a strategic nuisance.

ISIS-Khorasan has no specific region in which it operates, but rather targets Shia populations and engages in violent activities against secular governments it perceives as oppressing Muslims, such as Russia.

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First, we look across the world and use our skill sets to identify where the needs are most acute. Second, we look for an institution with preexisting networks for both materials gathering and aid distribution. That way we know every cent of our donation is not simply going directly to where help is needed most, but our donations serve as a force multiplier for a system already in existence. Then we give what we can.

Today, our chosen charity is a group called Medshare, which provides emergency medical services to communities in need, with a very heavy emphasis on locations facing acute crises. Medshare operates right in the thick of it. Until future notice, every cent we earn from every book we sell in every format through every retailer is going to Medshare’s Ukraine fund.

And then there’s you.

Our newsletters and videologues are not only free, they will always be free. We also will never share your contact information with anyone. All we ask is that if you find one of our releases in any way useful, that you make a donation to Medshare. Over one third of Ukraine’s pre-war population has either been forced from their homes, kidnapped and shipped to Russia, or is trying to survive in occupied lands. This is our way to help who we can. Please, join us.


Hey everybody. Peter Zeihan here coming to you from Frigid Colorado. We’re taking a entry from the Ask Peter System today in the aftermath of attacks by the Islamic State of Khorasan on Iran and more recently on Russia. I was requested to do a geopolitics of ISIS video. So here we go. Couple of things to keep in mind. First of all, ISIS’s and ISIS Khorasan are two very different groups. 

So I can do a geopolitics of ISIS. ISIS’s core power is in the middle Fertile Crescent between western Syria and central Iraq. So basically, you’ve got the Euphrates Valley that goes from the Persian Gulf up through central Iraq into western Iraq. Northern Iraq then comes back down to the cities of harm, Hama and Aleppo or Aleppo, excuse me. 

Well, that is the zone that technology and people and ideas and trade are percolated back and forth through a lot of human history, especially the earlier days. And in that zone, the thing to remember is that the crescent is very, very, very thin. While you do have Mesopotamia in the east, where the Tigris comes into play, in the zone between the rivers, it is a major agricultural zone. 

And while you do have more rainfall in extreme western Syria, when the Lebanon mountains merge with the the highlands that eventually become Anatolia in the middle, you only have the Euphrates. And even in modern days with industrial level technology, in many cases, the green belt where you can grow food in the central Euphrates region is only a few miles from north to south. 

And because of that, they’ve never been able to develop kind of the dense population centers because there’s never enough food production. And the zones that you can do something with are very, very skinny and very, very worn, which makes it very difficult to patrol it. So think about this this way. If your city was a half a mile wide but 20 miles long and the proportions are much worse for Iraq, if you were of your police station is getting all the way down and all the way back would be difficult. 

You want something that’s spread out from a central point like, you know, say, a Chicago or Houston or Dallas or most of our cities. It just makes a civilizational penetration much more difficult and eventually hit hard. Does it do anything? So this is the zone that ISIS’s from water is limited. There’s only one source aside from the oases, and either you control it or you don’t. 

And so geopolitics, that region tend to be very visceral and very desperate. And this is part of the reason why ISIS is so violent, because it is a battle for survival among groups every single day. Now, it also means that groups like ISIS are not long for this world. If you look at the region from a broader perspective, if you go further west, you hit the Levant, which has powers like Israel and the core of Syria to go north. 

You get into Anatolia and the Turkish territories, and if you go east, you get into Mesopotamia, which is have been a cradle of civilization for quite some time. This zone in the middle can’t do anything. And the zone in the middle has never been powerful enough to penetrate into any of those other three zones. So the only time this zone in the middle matters at all is when all three of those major areas are off light at the same time. 

And if you go back to ISIS’s heyday ten, 15 years ago, that’s exactly where we were. Syria was in a civil war that the central government had almost lost. Iraq was reeling from the effects of the American occupation, was not able to patrol its own territory, much less things on its fringes. And the Turks had not yet reemerged from their century long self-imposed geopolitical sleep. 

It was a very different situation. And so ISIS was able to form, recruit, expand, dominate groups and basically go on a series of small genocides. It was pretty nasty. Now, that’s not our situation. The Syrian government has, for the most part, stabilized. Even if the civil war is not quite over. The Turks are back in the game and are crossing the border regularly. 

And Iraq is a power worthy of its name again. And so ISIS is basically fallen from controlling territory to just a few outposts that move around and a general insurgency in some of the least valuable property in the Middle East. So that’s icis. ISIS Khorasan is different. ISIS chorus on things that ISIS’s a bunch of wimps because they don’t kill enough people, specifically Shia, ISIS’s primarily Sunni. 

I Scorsone as well. And they see Shia as the worst apostates of all and so they are not interested in holding territory. They are interested in taking the battle wherever it may go and wherever there’s a secular government. And so that has taken them against the Taliban, which they think are a bunch of horses. Let’s take it up against the Iranians who are Shia. 

And that’s taken them against the Russians, who they see as oppressing their fellow Sunni followers. Because of this, you can’t do a geopolitics of ISIS Khorasan because they’re not interested in territory. They don’t have a home territory. They’re actually fairly egalitarian as to who they take into their ranks as long as you’re not a Shia. And in the case of the Russian space, there are a lot of subjugated Muslim populations with probably the Uzbeks being the most important that are willing to join violent groups. 

And so one of the things that it appears to be with ISIS course on is they’ve been recruiting pretty aggressively from within the former Soviet sphere. Uzbeks, Tajiks, some Kyrgyz, maybe some to some Turkmen, and hopefully not, but most likely. So Dagestan is Chechens about Kurds and Tatars. Those are all people who live within the Russian Federation today. 

So the danger here for the Russians is very, very real from a security point of view, an analogy, a logical point of view. But you can’t do a geopolitics of ISIS’s or ICE’s Kurdistan because they don’t have a core territory. They’re a splinter group that’s based entirely on ideology. So ISIS is not the sort of group that can expand much beyond its current footprint and certainly not beyond that part of the Middle Euphrates, where from time to time they can kind of expand its course on as a different sort of category. 

They are not constrained and it could very well be coming to a place near you. That was way more inflammatory than he deserved. While there have been certainly plots interrupted by ISIS because American interest, there’s no sign that the uproar in the United States for that yet.

Where in the World: Drangsnes, and the Kabul Bombing

News arrives a little more slowly here in northern Iceland. But as the details of the horrific attack against US service members and Afghan nationals came in across my phone, so too did many arguments that these are exactly the same sorts of individuals the US should remain in Afghanistan to combat. 


And perhaps not. Groups like the Khorasan Province offshoot of ISIL are going to attack when and wherever they find that they have operational capacity. The real question is, do they pose a direct threat to the Americans’ homeland and core strategic interests or a bigger one to the Taliban and its regional neighbors? Expect the US to pursue retribution against any and all groups and individuals that target US citizens and strategic interests, but don’t expect these attacks to trigger a shift in US policy that will see Washington cleaning up a group that places the Taliban and Iran near the top of its most-hated list.

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The Left Leaves

A terror attack in the United Kingdom May 23 killed at least 22, and injured dozens more. As the attack targeted a youth pop concert, a high proportion of the deaths were among children and teenagers. United Kingdom Prime Minister Theresa May immediately cancelled all her ruling Tory Party’s campaign events — national elections are June 8 — so her government could focus on the crisis. The country’s other parties quickly followed suit.

As of yesterday, the Tories had this election locked up to the degree that a generational shift in UK politics was in the offing. If the polls are accurate, the Tories would have eaten deeply into the holdings of other parties not just in England, but in Wales and Scotland as well. Ongoing Brexit talks have justified and energized the Brits separate-and-superior mindset, and Theresa May has been using that energy to reshape the UK political space. That means, among other things, the British Labour party moving into the political wilderness, the de facto absorption of the anti-EU UK Independence party into the Tories, the Liberal Democrats’ return to the fringes of British power, and the evisceration of the Scottish National Party’s stronghold on Scottish politics and an end (for now) of talk of Scottish independence.

That was before the attack.

Between the rally-round-the-flag effect of terror attacks and the fact that the ruling Tories are the law-and-order party, the UK is now on the cusp of a complete overhaul. Barring some truly unprecedented revelations that bring down May and the entirety of the Conservative leadership, the Tories will walk away from the June elections with the strongest showing of perhaps the last century. In the election’s wake, Labour will not simply be weak, it will be gone and it is unlikely to come back in a meaningful way.

What’s going on in the United Kingdom is hardly unique; Center-left parties are collapsing across the developed world. It is a symptom of a wider change in the way we all live.

Contemporary political systems are an outgrowth of the economic structures established by the industrial revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Before those economic revolutions the world was a constellation of fairly small places. Low-output per hour of work in agriculture forced most of the population to be farmers. Life before semis and railroads and globalized supply chains meant that foodstuffs needed to be lugged around by horse and backpack. Cities — places where you could not grow your own food — were small as well as, well, revolting. Cram a bunch of people in a small space with no running water or plumbing, make them dependent upon food that has to be carried in from somewhere else, and things get gross and violent pretty quickly. In such a world, there weren’t a lot of mass-mobilization politics. Either you were a landowner or other flavor of aristocrat who ruled, or you were a pleb who didn’t get a vote.

The First Industrial Revolution of roughly 1760 to 1820 upended that system. The introduction of mechanized energy such as steam engines enabled us to shift from producing goods by hands to producing them with machines. Such mass outputs increased worker efficiency while concentrating the geography of production. The result was mass urbanization and mass worker concentration. Within a few decades these economic evolutions shifted the balances of power. The “Left” catered to those who provided the labor in the new order, while the “Right” represented those who controlled the land and capital. There are many different ways to categories the Left and the Right, but the transition to industrialization is where the political cleavages in the modern world started, and have remained the most powerful delineating factor in Western politics ever since.

Plenty of folks vested in the pre-industrial order fought tooth and nail against the emerging political landscape, but they faced two insurmountable challenges. First, the winds of history were blowing and you cannot un-invent technology without removing the bedrock of the civilization that supports it (i.e. devolution into anarchy). As the new Lefters and Righters gained power, these older groups fought back. Political instability and even revolutions were the rules of the day. And even when the old-order folks won, its isn’t like their areas suddenly de-industrialized. New challenges arose the very next day until all the old world was swept away.

Second, there was a new country on the scene that had the gall to let the people decide who would be in charge. Those pesky Americans devised a political system — democracy — that was (quite accidentally) able to reshape itself, contain and ultimately harness the new economic-political lines of identification. Democracy quickly became a way to accelerate the shift from the old world of aristocrats, plutocrats and royals to a newer system with a deep economic rationale that enjoyed broader support.

The Second Industrial Revolution of 1860 to 1945 was the equivalent of rocket fuel in a station wagon. Machine tools gave way to assembly lines. Coal gave way to diesel and gasoline. Railways, telegraphs and ocean-going fuel-burning cargo ships took over global commerce. Many of the new developments — in transport, medicine and sanitation — were expressly designed to counter some of the more disgusting aspects of early industrialization. Antibiotics, sewers, electricity and new distribution techs didn’t just make cities bigger, but also removed some of the features that made them death traps when compared to the countryside — accelerating urbanization. The countryside, where Left-Right classifications weren’t entirely appropriate, became systematically less important as populations en masse shifted into the urban worker-capital categories.

This broad system of political alignment then held until about ten years ago.

The financial crisis of 2008 was a watershed because it seized up traditional capital markets. That disruption damaged everything that the economic structures of the industrial revolution sustained: life-long careers (and even jobs), labor unions, traditional manufacturing, employment patterns…and the Left-Right split that represented all those things in the political arena. The 2008 crisis occurred just as computerization was really hitting its stride, and the link between capital and capital-owners has blurred. Unequally distributed wealth isn’t the point — it is that capital is no longer linked at the hip to organized industry. Capital is now free-flowing. It goes to any place in any industry in any volume based on what looks promising.

That is exciting, but it is also disruptive. Less Walmart, more Amazon. Fewer assembly lines, more 3D printing machine shops. Fewer accountants, more TurboTax. Fewer unions, more Uber. Fewer financial firms and more AI-driven stock trading. Fewer supermajors and more tiny firms using infotech to wrestle oil out of shale formations. Fewer landlines and all the labor and mammoth companies that go along with them, more iPhones that just require the odd cell tower. We are now in a Digital Revolution that is redefining the relationship between labor and capital. Sure, it means that you can do more with less and have fancy gadgets, but it also means that anyone who had a stake in the old system — whether a line worker or a bank teller or a secretary or a stock broker or a roughneck — has to abandon not just their job, but their career. And that has political consequences.

The new technologies are far less labor intensive — meaning fewer workers. The new technologies have far lower barriers to entry, so there is no monolithic employer — meaning no unions to support, and no employer to bargain with or fight against. The traditional “Left” just doesn’t fit in the world rapidly unfolding, and so it is collapsing. Everywhere.

  • In the United States the populist uprising that elected Donald Trump is a textbook case of how economic evolution shapes political choice. Line workers — even union workers — deserted the Democrats en masse for Trump. What’s left of the Democrats — and they’ve lost over 1000 elected positions at state and national level since 2008 — is now incapable of taking any stance save a general opposition to all things Trump. That’s not enough to hold, and they face a generational wipeout in the 2018 by-elections that is likely to hand the Republicans their strongest Congressional majority in decades.
  • French presidential elections in May eradicated the ruling Socialists. Their candidate didn’t only not make it to the second voting round, he only garnered an 6% share of the first-round vote. Parliamentary elections in June may well reduce them from the dominant party in the National Assembly to the fourth-largest.
  • The European financial crisis has gutted the political stability of Europe’s peripheral countries. Greece is ruled by the nationalist-communists. Italy will likely have a comedian as prime minister by year’s-end. The Spanish Left is being displaced by a party that takes its developmental cues from Greece.
  • In Israel the economic shift has been so holistic that it has nearly banished the Israeli Labor party — the party that founded Israel — from the Knesset.

The only significant country where the Left is holding any ground is Germany, a country artificially re-constructed after World War II to have a very specific — and durable — political system. And even there the Social Democrats are on course to lose their fourth consecutive election this fall. (Yes, the center-left actually rules Canada — the only place of note that it still does. but Canada both lives in strategic nirvana and is disastrously complicated from a domestic political organizational point of view so I’d not draw too many lessons from the Great White North.)

What’s left of the economic Left is being subsumed by populism, a movement that broadly speaking is unhappy with the current state of affairs, thinks that everyone is out to get them, wants change, wants it now, and wants to use a mass government overhaul in order to force the issue (in the 1930s we would have called this national-socialism). Populism has managed to capture much of the Left’s thunder in a wide variety of countries including — but hardly limited to — Hungary, Poland, Austria, Finland, Israel, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey. Yes, Trump is a symptom of the Populist rise. But so too are Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. (There are many types of populists. None have ever ended up delivering what they promise.)

It is tempting to say that politics is cyclical and the Left will recover, or that it botched the chance to rule in the past two decades and it just needs a little time in the wilderness to reconnect to its roots, or that the Left can embrace other issues like identity politics and social issues to reinvigorate itself. But that misses the point. The economic Left has lost power everywhere. The grab bag that remains is important and will obviously color political and social evolutions, but it cannot define the era. Such awkward coalitions can garner votes, but not in the quantities sufficient to govern. The term “Left” itself may be appropriated by new and varied causes — the most likely is to support the coalition of those devastated by Apple, Amazon, Uber and the rest — but those are not workers, but instead the opposite. The rubric that has defined the Left for nearly two centuries is gone.

And before those of you on the Right get too excited, just because the Left disappears doesn’t mean the Right wins. The Left is not alone in dissolving into the Digital Revolution. The Right as we understand the term is finished too. Trump won by running against the Republicans. May is in charge in the UK because the traditional Right collapsed in the Brexit vote. France’s Right is in just as much trouble as the French Socialists. The Right parties of Poland, Israel, Austria and Japan are now more nationalist and/or populist than that the classical Right in the labor-capital divide.

It is about to get a whole lot worse. As the global demographic flips into mass retirement around 2022, the availability of capital that has made the Digital Revolution so broad and deep will drastically shrink. Currently, changes in capital allocation are breaking down our “normal” Left-Right political systems, but the Digital Revolution’s advances at least maintaining an economic structure. Remove all the capital that makes the Digital Revolution possible and we’re in for a world of hurt…with populism the only political movement that has traction.

The last time our economic-political systems faced this much evolution and upheaval, the disruption lasted over a century and culminated in the world wars. The issue is that you can’t have normal political parties unless you have a grand vision, and you can’t form a grand vision unless you understand the rules of the game. As the developed world moves into a post-industrial economic system — and one in which the global population structure shifts from young, working tax-payers to retirees — we don’t know what those rules are. And until we do, we cannot begin process of exploring how to rule ourselves.

Brussels Attacks Are Just a Symptom

Coordinated terror attacks rocked Brussels this morning, following a successful raid earlier this week that saw French and Belgian security forces capture the surviving would-be suicide bomber and participant in Paris’ November 2015 terror attacks. ISIS affiliates have claimed responsibility for the attack, leaving today’s coordinated bombings at a metro station and the Brussels airport the latest of the organization’s high profile actions in Europe.

Belgium’s Arab community have come under greater scrutiny in recent months, as have many of Western Europe’s Muslim and Arab communities, but Brussels faces an uphill climb in guaranteeing its own security. The basic definition of statecraft is the ability to control one’s borders—as the de facto capital of the European Union, Belgium sits in the middle of a conglomeration of relatively wealthy European governments with little to no border controls. Add to this years of political deadlock and a police system that favors human rights and adheres to strict privacy protections at the expense of security, and it’s easy to see why Belgium and terrorism have been occupying headlines so frequently as of late.

Europe is still clinging to a world that functionally no longer exists. European capitals are digging in their heels and pushing for civility and, well, Europeaness while the Continent’s broader periphery rapidly devolves into chaos. The most obvious (but far from the only) source of the disruption is Syria, a state that is rapidly de-civilizing. Considering the weakness of next-door Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan, this is only the beginning of a larger civilizational breakdown.

So morally, the European position is worthy of respect and acclaim. Functionally, however, it is idiotic.

The problem — well, part of the problem — is that there’s been a geopolitical shift immediately on Europe’s southeastern border. Turkey, for all intents and purposes, is no longer part of the civilizational block that is known as the “West.” You can certainly argue (accurately) that Turkey never fully joined the West in whole — there were always a host of linguistic, religious, ethnic, historical and cultural barriers to true merger — but in the past decade Europe and Turkey have slid further and further apart, and in recent weeks the Turkish government took over the last remaining independent media outlet of significance. From an ethical point of view, the split is now complete.

Persian Gulf Image

Turkey is now unhinged — as seen by last week’s suicide bombings in Ankara and Istanbul — eliminating any chance that the Europeans had of managing their terror or migration problems. For now, the best case scenario for the Europeans is that Turkey rounds up the migrants into camps, and then invades and occupies Syria in order to destroy both the Assad government and the Islamic State.

Put simply, the EU’s anti-terror, migration and strategic policies are now little more than hope that Turkey, a freshly illiberal state that doesn’t think very highly of Europe (and is technically in a state of war with one of its members) fully militarizes and starts invading its neighbors.

This will end (very) badly.