The United Nations (UN) and the Houthi Ansar Allah (Supporters of God) group in Yemen announced, in the last week of November 2020, that they have reached an agreement to conduct "urgent maintenance" and "comprehensive evaluation" of the Safer oil tanker, which is floating off the Port of Ras Isa in Hodeidah Governorate, in the west of the country. While the Houthis’ commitment to this agreement was met with skepticism on the part of the government of President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi, the agreement per se received a cautious international welcome, as it constitutes a "breakthrough" in the crisis of the dilapidated tanker, whose condition has greatly worsened and which has come to constitute a source of global concern, thus paving the way for finding a final solution to its crisis.

The development of positions on the tanker crisis

In mid-July 2020, prior to a session of the UN Security Council (UNSC) on the Safer tanker, the Houthi group announced its agreement to allow a team of international experts to access and maintain the tanker. However, it retracted one week after that approval, raising the condition that a "third party" intervene in the operation led by UN experts to assess the floating oil tank (the group suggested the intervention of countries that it says are "not aligned" or "involved" in the Yemeni conflict, such as Russia, China and Germany). Since then, the UN and Houthi sides have engaged in complex discussions, in the light of the Houthis' insistence on overseeing all the details of the maintenance and evaluation process, and of the conditions they raised that allow them to take exclusive decisions regarding the tanker and the methods of its evaluation and maintenance, benefit exclusively from the proceeds from the sale of the crude oil inside it, and exclude the government of President Hadi from getting involved in the details of this process or any agreement related to it.

The terrible explosion that occurred in the Port of Beirut in early August 2020 prompted the international community to pay more attention to the issue of the Safer tanker. Thus, pressure increased on the parties to the conflict in Yemen to solve it, in the light of the growing fears of a similar disaster in the event of the explosion of the tanker. In this context, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) sought to lead the diplomatic pressure on the Houthis in particular. In the last week of September 2020, the KSA sounded the alarm and called on the international community to act after detecting a leak that led to an oil slick at a distance of 50 kilometres near the Safer oil tanker. The KSA called on the UNSC to "assume its responsibility" and to "take immediate measures" to allow UN experts to access the tanker which is eroding and decaying, warning of the dangers that could be brought about by any oil spill from the floating oil tank for the countries overlooking the Red Sea and for international maritime shipping.

However, in contrast to those increasing Saudi and regional moves, calls, and pressures, the Houthis continued to show their adherence to their own approach to resolving the tanker crisis, holding the UN responsible for what would result from any oil spillage from it and claiming that they are dealing positively with this issue, according to the remarks of a responsible source in the group. The same source confirmed that the Supreme Political Council in Sanaa, which is the highest Houthi ruling authority, had set up a mechanism regarding permitting the UN team to board the ship, and that the UN should conform to that mechanism.

In August 2020, the Houthis had announced their approval of the UN request to facilitate the tasks of an international technical team to assess the status of the Safer tanker. However, shortly afterwards, the internationally recognised Yemeni government was quick to accuse the group of preventing the engineers of the Singaporean company Asia Offshore Solutions (AOS), which was contracted by the UN to assess the status of the tanker, from entering the territories under its control, and of refusing to grant them the necessary visas and permissions to embark on their mission. The British Ambassador to Yemen Michael Aron stated in press statements published in the last week of August 2020 that the Houthis demanded the disqualification of the contracted company and the appointment of another company. For their part, however, the Houthi group claimed, through Hussain al-Ezzi, the Deputy Foreign Minister of its coup government in Sanaa, that the agreement with the UN Envoy on the tanker "stipulated that a team of experts would be sent to assess the damages of the Safer tanker and repair them and that the United Nations Verification and Inspection Mechanism for Yemen (UNVIM) team would be sent to Hodeidah to ease the restrictions imposed on the entry of ships”. Al-Ezzi accused the UN of “backing down from sending the UNVIM team to the port of Hodeidah as agreed, and of requesting that the team be given up and delinked from the vessel Safer despite the issuance on our part of entry visas for the UN team”, according to the Houthi official.

In another indication of the group's hard-line position on the tanker crisis, on 19 September 2020, local media outlets reported that the Minister of Oil and Minerals in the Houthi government Ahmed Abdullah Dars said in a meeting devoted to discussing the status of the tanker, that the de facto authority in Sanaa shall not sell the floating tank Safer to a quarter that does not own it, shall not permit the ship to be towed to any other country, and shall keep it and maintain it through a local company. Upon completion of the political negotiation process and issuance of maintenance orders, we shall immediately proceed with the maintenance process".

A "compromise" that is met with skepticism

In the light of the sharp and clear divergence in the positions of the parties to the Yemeni conflict regarding the crisis of the Safer tanker, the recent UN-Houthi agreement on the maintenance and evaluation process could be said to constitute a new gain for the group and reflect the relative strength of its negotiating position as opposed to the fragile position of its opponents, given that the agreement in fact constitutes a compromise between the demands of the UN and the Houthi sides. The United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) refused to go beyond the proposed evaluation and maintenance process and provide equipment that would enable the Houthis to reactivate the tanker later on, such as the nitrogen generator demanded by the group as a suitable alternative to the inert gas system in the tanker. The UNOPS simply focused on carrying out the maintenance that would prevent oil leakage from the floating tank.

According to the Spokesman for the United Nations Secretary-General (UNSG) Stéphane Dujarric, the main goal of the UN experts' mission, whose work would be fully funded by four European countries, namely Britain, Germany, France and the Netherlands, at an amount ranging between 3 and 4 million dollars, is to assess the tanker’s condition, undertake light initial maintenance, and put forward recommendations on the subsequent measures that should be taken to eliminate the risk of oil spillage from the tanker. Dujarric indicated that “now that the UN proposal for the expert mission has been agreed, mission planning will immediately pivot towards deployment preparations. This includes procurement of necessary equipment, entry permits for all mission staff, agreement of a work-order system on board and logistical planning”.

While the government of President Hadi, which was excluded from the agreement on the Safer tanker, reiterated its doubts about the seriousness of the commitment by the Houthi group thereto, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab considered that the group's agreement to allow the inspection of the tanker is a "positive step" in general, underlining, in a tweet he posted on his account on Twitter, the importance of making urgent progress in this regard in order to avoid the huge environmental threat that the carrier poses to Yemen and the Red Sea. In response to a question about the concerns raised by Yemeni officials regarding the operation of the tanker after the evaluation or maintenance have been conducted and the future challenge that this could constitute for all, the British Ambassador to Yemen Michael Aron said, in November 2020: “we should “first wait for the report of the UN team and then see. They will carry out an evaluation and a little bit of maintenance to mitigate the risk. Then the team will write a report that puts forward recommendations and indicates the priorities”.

Expectations

According to the current indications, a near breakthrough regarding the Safer oil tanker crisis still seems a long way off despite the state of optimism that followed the announcement of the recent agreement between the UN and the Houthi group on the maintenance and evaluation process. The plausible scenario seems to indicate that the crisis will persist and that the parties concerned will continue to exchange accusations thereon for some time, especially since the arrival of the team of experts that will seek to assess the tanker’s condition requires some time. According to the UN, this will not take place before the end of January or early February 2021.

In the meantime, a number of experts tend to believe that the tanker’s condition will worsen in the immediate future due to the continued accumulation of volatile gases emitted from the oil inside it, thus increasing the chances of its explosion or of an oil leakage therefrom. In the face of such potentially dire consequences, the international actors, including the UN mediation, are expected to continue their pressure on the Houthi group to make it fulfill its obligations according to the recent agreement concluded with it, and at the same time urge the two parties to the conflict in Yemen to refrain from politicising the tanker crisis or exploiting it to achieve interim gains in other issues, especially since the consequences of any environmental disaster that may be caused by the dilapidated tanker would not only affect Yemen and exacerbate its great human suffering, but would also have devastating effects and long-term negative repercussions for neighbouring countries as well.

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