International pressure has increased on the two main conflict parties in Yemen (the government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and the Houthi Ansar Allah group) to find a compromise solution to the crisis of the tanker FSO Safer which is used as a floating tank to export crude oil in Ras Isa port off the Yemeni coast on the Red Sea, in light of the successive warnings of the consequences of a potential environmental disaster that may be caused by the tanker, which is susceptible to explosion or the collapse of its structure due to corrosion as a result of the lack of any maintenance work on it since 2015. The explosion of the Beirut port in early August 2020 prompted granting greater attention on the part of the international community to the issue of the tanker Safer, and exerting more pressure on the parties to the conflict to resolve it, in light of the growing fears of a similar disaster in the event that an explosion takes place on board the tanker.
Development of the tanker crisis and positions of the actors
The floating oil tanker Safer, which was built in Japan during the 1970s, is carrying 1.2 million barrels of crude oil (138,000 tons). It has been moored off the coast of Hudaydah (also Hodeidah) in the west of the country without maintenance for nearly five years. As a result, water recently leaked into its main engine, according to government reports. The Secretary-General of the United Nations (UNSG) recently expressed his deep concern about the condition of the dilapidated tanker. He indicated in an official statement that he issued in mid-August 2020 that the tanker is exposed to the risk of a “major oil spill, explosion or fire, that would have catastrophic environmental and humanitarian consequences for Yemen and the region”. He warned that “a potential oil leak into the Red Sea would severely harm Red Sea ecosystems relied on by 30 million people across the region. It would moreover force the closure of Hudaydah port for many months, which would exacerbate Yemen’s already severe economic crisis and cut off millions of people from access to food and other essential commodities”.
The UN statement added: "The tragic Beirut explosion on 4 August , and the recent alarming oil spill in Mauritius demand the world’s vigilance and urgent action to avert preventable loss of life and livelihoods where possible. For now, this remains a preventable tragedy. But not for long. If a spill, an explosion or a fire were to occur, mounting an effective response would be severely constrained given the limited availability of specialist equipment and personnel amidst the ongoing conflict”.
Over the past months, the two parties to the conflict in Yemen (the internationally recognized government and the Houthis) have exchanged accusations regarding the identity of the perpetrator of the tanker crisis. Each of them separately appealed to the international community to intervene urgently in order to avoid a serious environmental disaster in the Red Sea, also calling on the United Nations (UN) to exert pressure on the other side to allow emptying the tanker and carrying out maintenance on it. However, the overall evidence indicates that the Houthis rather than any other party bear responsibility for this crisis. While they requested UN intervention and assistance and pledged to facilitate the tasks of any technical team that would be sent by the UN with the aim of assessing the condition of the oil reservoir and its maintenance, they subsequently backed down from a number of understandings that were concluded with them in this regard. This prompted the internationally recognized government to demand that this file be dissociated from other UN mediation proposals regarding the Yemeni crisis, so that it would be dealt with it as an urgent file that requires special attention and priority to avoid a potential environmental disaster.
It appeared that the Houthis, taking advantage of the international community's concerns about the repercussions of the tanker collapse, have begun to exploit this issue for political and financial bargaining. On the one hand, they seek to benefit financially and obtain some resources, as evidenced by their requirement to sell the amount of oil contained in the tanker (whose value is estimated at more than 40 million dollars), and to obtain part of the proceeds to allow its maintenance. On the other hand, they demonstrate their eagerness to use the tanker as a threatening weapon in the field confrontation and to reap additional political and media gains. Their leaders had previously threatened to empty the oil cargo in the sea water or to plant explosives in the tanker and detonate it if the Arab coalition and legitimacy forces attempted to advance to control the city of Hodeidah and its port. Their continued reluctance, and their backing down from the initial understandings concluded with them, indicate their expectation that threatening with a catastrophe and the world's fears of its occurrence would increase international pressure on their adversaries to end the conflict.
Increasing international pressure
Despite the differences in the positions of the parties to the Yemeni conflict regarding the Safer crisis, international efforts to end this crisis continued. For example, the UK sought to mediate in this file. Its ambassador to Yemen Michael Aron warned on more than one occasion that the leak of the tanker’s oil would destroy the Red Sea and its coast. He repeatedly demanded that the Houthis allow the UN to address the situation before it was too late. The issue also received the attention of other Western countries, such as the US, Belgium and Poland, which sought to raise the issue at the UN Security Council (UNSC). The European Union (EU) had previously announced that it was working with the UN to allow the technical team to inspect the tanker.
Against the background of the developing controversy over the condition of the Safer oil tanker and the increasing warnings about it, in mid-July 2020, the UNSC held a special session to discuss the tanker crisis, based on an urgent request of the Yemeni government supported by the UK. The Houthis tried to anticipate the session by presenting an official statement to the UN, confirming their initial approval for a UN team of experts to assess the condition of the tanker, conduct initial repairs, and advise on any remaining measures that would be necessary to avoid an oil spill. However, Yemeni government officials accused the group of planning a new political manoeuvre with this approval. It had previously done the same thing in the summer of 2019 before backing down from its decision at the last moment on the eve of the start of the international team's mission.
It was noted that the deliberations of the UNSC meeting, which was held by videoconference, during which UN officials reiterated their fear of a "catastrophic scenario" if oil leaks from the rickety tanker into the sea, did not set a clear date for the inspection of the tanker, which is supposed to be carried out by a team of international experts in preparation for the evacuation of the tanker’s load of crude oil. At the end of the session, which was interspersed with closed consultations, the UNSC fifteen members unanimously issued a statement in which they “expressed deep alarm at the growing risk that the Safer oil tanker could rupture or explode, causing an environmental, economic, and humanitarian catastrophe for Yemen and its neighbours”. They called on the Houthi group to “convert this commitment into concrete action as soon as possible”. In the same statement, the UNSC members looked forward to “seeing concrete action implemented without delay”.
While the Houthis continued to show their determination not to settle the issue of the tanker in isolation as has been demanded by the government of President Hadi, linking this issue to the settlement of other issues such as the need for the UN to provide guarantees that the tanker will be repaired according to standards and within measures accepted by them, and that the proceeds from the sale of the existing oil on board the tanker would be transferred to pay the salaries of employees working in departments that are mainly subject to their authority, the increasing pressure on the Houthis recently, and the emergence of a greater international consensus that they bear the bulk of the responsibility for the exacerbation of the tanker crisis, have prompted them to show some flexibility and make some concessions on this issue. They finally agreed, in writing, to the UN request to facilitate the tasks of an international technical team to assess the condition of the tanker Safer.
However, shortly afterwards, the legitimate government accused the Houthis of preventing the entry of the engineers of the Singaporean company that had been commissioned by the UN to assess the condition of the tanker, and of refusing to grant them the necessary visas and permissions to embark on their mission. In the same context, the British ambassador to Yemen Michael Aron explained that the Houthis want to disqualify the contracted company and appoint another company. On the other hand, the Houthis claimed through one of their leaders, namely Hussein al-Ezzi, that the agreement with the UN envoy on the tanker "stipulated sending an expert team to assess the damage in the Safer ship and repair it and sending the team of the United Nations Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen (UNVIM) to Hodeidah to ease the restrictions imposed on the entry of ships". They accused the UN of “backing down from sending the UNVIM team to the port of Hodeidah, as agreed upon, and of demanding that the agreement be relinquished and delinked from the vessel Safer despite the issuance of entry visas for the UN team”. However, the British ambassador to Yemen Michael Aron clarified in recent remarks to the press that the UN engineers have not yet obtained entry visas from the Houthis, indicating that the formation of the UN team of experts may take a month as they are located in different countries around the world. According to the British ambassador, "there are nearly 17 engineers from the Singaporean company to whom the Houthis agreed to provide visas. However, the visas have not yet been issued, and the engineers are still in Djibouti”.
According to current indications, it seems that a breakthrough in the crisis of the tanker Safer is still unlikely, and that the scenario that it will remain pending is the most plausible, especially that the formation of the team of experts that will seek to assess the condition of the tanker may take more than a month, according to estimates of some Western diplomats. In the meantime, a number of experts tend to suggest either that the tanker’s condition will worsen shortly due to the accumulation of volatile gases emitted from the oil inside it which may cause its explosion, or that the tanker will collapse completely as a result of corrosion and the seepage of sea water into it. In both cases, a huge amount of oil will seep into the Red Sea.
In the face of such dire consequences, international actors, including the UN mediation, are expected to continue their pressure on the Yemeni parties to achieve a breakthrough in the Safer oil tanker crisis file, and to urge the two parties to the conflict to discontinue politicizing this crisis or exploiting it to gain advantages in other files, especially that the consequences of any disaster that may be caused by the dilapidated tanker would not only affect Yemen and increase its great human suffering, but also have devastating effects on and long-term negative repercussions for neighbouring countries and international shipping lanes in the southern Red Sea.
Malik al-Hafez | 13 Sep 2020
Bilal Abdullah | 10 Sep 2020
EPC | 10 Sep 2020