Moored off the coast of Yemen on the Red Sea is a rapidly decaying oil tanker – the FSO Safer – loaded with more than 1.1 million barrels of crude oil, which could explode at any moment. This floating supertanker has been left unmaintained since 2015 due to the Houthis’ refusal to grant the United Nations access to the Safer. But now the U.N. has a plan, and this issue must be resolved before it becomes an environmental tragedy.
In March, the Houthis signed an agreement, consenting – at least on paper – to allow the U.N. to execute a plan for the Safer. Overall, the plan would cost $144 million, but the first emergency phase would require about $80 million. The emergency phase would eliminate the threat by moving the oil from the rotting ship to a new vessel, until a replacement vessel is ordered.
Otherwise, the clean-up expense of a potential oil spill is estimated at more than $20 billion, though the real cost is immeasurable. If the Safer leaks or explodes, it could cause one of the biggest oil spills the world has ever seen. It would cause immense detriment to the environment – affecting precious biodiversity, damaging marine life, mangroves, and the longest continuous coral reefs on the planet, considered one of the largest refuges from climate change.
Moreover, it would harm international trade and shipping, negatively affecting the port of Hodeidah – the main seaport for humanitarian assistance delivery into Yemen – and the Bab el-Mandeb strait – one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes. An oil spill from the Safer would make the Ever Given incident in 2021, when the giant container ship ran aground and blocked the Suez Canal, pale in comparison in terms of its disruption to global shipping.
So far, the U.N. has received pledges totaling around $62 million from the United States, Saudi Arabia, the Netherlands, Germany, the United Kingdom, the European Union, Qatar, Sweden, Norway, Finland, France, Switzerland, and Luxembourg. For this plan to work, it needs to start as soon as possible, certainly before the seasonal change to maritime currents on the Red Sea, as anticipated later in the year.
Why has an issue this big not been addressed before? And why will it cost so much to be resolved? The Safer is unfortunately more like a hostage situation – the Houthis have the upper hand since they control access to it. The U.N. and the government of Yemen have been trying to no avail for years to resolve this issue with the Houthis. At one point, in 2019, the U.N. team had everything it needed in terms of funding and the personnel to evaluate the situation on board the ship, but the Houthis refused to grant the team entry to the Safer, and the money spent at the time (more than $12 million) and all efforts were wasted.
On July 3, 2020, in my former capacity as the foreign minister of Yemen, I sent a letter to inform the U.N. Security Council that despite all the requests made to the Houthis, and despite the government approval of a detailed proposal presented by the U.N. special envoy for Yemen to resolve the Safer issue, the Houthis rejected it. The letter also called on the Security Council to “fulfil its responsibilities and address this important matter at a special meeting, with a view to taking the actions and measures required to oblige the Houthis to heed our collective call and grant a United Nations technical team unconditional and unfettered access to the Safer and allow it to carry out its duties, in order to prevent one of the worst environmental disasters that the region or the world will have ever experienced from occurring.”
On July 15, 2020, the Security Council convened a special session to address the Safer issue, and the Houthis announced that they would agree to comply. The Security Council issued a statement and “acknowledged the announcement of the Houthis to grant access to the Safer tanker, and called on them to convert this commitment into concrete action as soon as possible, including by agreeing to entry permits, a safe travel route to the tanker, and all other logistical arrangements, in order to facilitate unconditional access for United Nations technical experts to assess the tanker’s condition, conduct any possible urgent repairs, and make recommendations for the safe extraction of the oil, ensuring close cooperation with the United Nations.” However, the Houthis later refused to take any of the agreed upon actions.
The Houthis are using the Safer as a bargaining chip and as a deterrent weapon in Hodeidah, especially since Yemeni government forces attempted to liberate the port city in 2018. They are doing this despite the risk to the Yemeni people.
This is a critical moment for the Safer. Even though funding for the first phase of the U.N. plan is still $18 million short, the U.N. should move forward with it, starting with what it has right now. Indeed, the world can’t afford to wait; this ticking bomb needs to be defused before it’s too late. If the Houthis again refuse to cooperate, then the international community needs to exert the maximum possible pressure on them to save the lives and livelihoods of millions of people in the region and to avert a catastrophe looming closer.