Warnings of an increasing likelihood of an explosion or leakage from the "FSO Safer” oil tanker, which has been floating off the western coast of Yemen, 8 kilometers from the port of Ras Issa in the Hodeidah Governorate, have been mounting recently. This comes at a time when the United Nations and the Houthis continue to accuse each other of obstructing the implementation of an agreement they concluded in late November 2020, as well as a “scope of work document” for a UN expert mission that is supposed to be sent to assess the tanker’s situation and make some necessary repairs, pending a final solution to the tanker crisis. After declaring that the crisis had reached a “dead end", the Houthis accused the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) of "wasting time and donor funds allocated to the project on fruitless meetings and discussions, at a time when the situation of the tanker is much worse than it was when the agreement was signed."
This paper sheds more light on the tanker crisis, examines the latest developments after the Houthi-UN agreement and the positions of the various stakeholders, and explores the possible paths for this agreement.
FSO SAFER Crisis and the Houthi-UN Agreement
For more than two years, the condition of the "Safer” oil tanker, floating off the port of Ras Issa in the Hodeidah Governorate, western Yemen, has worsened, causing a major global concern. Many parties are warning of the escalating possibilities of an explosion or oil leakage from the tanker, especially after seawater leaked to the vessel's engine room, on May 27, 2020, which was temporarily contained at the time by SAFER divers. In order to avoid a catastrophe like the one left by the massive explosion in the port of Beirut in August last year, the international community intensified its pressure on the parties to the conflict, especially the Houthi group which controls the area where the ship is floating, to push for a final solution to the crisis and remove the danger it poses to Yemen, the region and the Red Sea in general.
Over the past two years, the United Nations and the Houthis have held intense and complex discussions, after the latter managed to distance the government of President Hadi from this issue. On more than one occasion, these talks resulted in understandings and agreements, the last of which was in late November last year. The Houthis and the United Nations announced at the time that they had reached an agreement on a "scope of work document" for a UN expert mission proposed to conduct a "comprehensive assessment and some necessary initial repairs" to the dilapidated tanker. But when it comes to implementation on the ground, no significant progress has been made so far. Rather, the two parties (the United Nations and the Houthis) continued to exchange accusations of procrastination and lack of seriousness in dealing with the tanker's problem and politicizing the crisis, and preemptively holding each other fully responsible for a looming disaster.
According to a report published by the United Nations on its website on December 30, 2020, the "scope of work document" that was officially approved by the Houthi group in late November 2020, included three main objectives: 1. To assess the condition of the SAFER oil tanker through analysis of its systems and structure; 2. To conduct urgent possible initial maintenance that might reduce the risk of an oil leak until a permanent solution is applied; 3. To formulate evidence-based options on what solutions are possible to permanently remove the threat of an oil spill. The United Nations estimated that the mission team will arrive at the site in mid-February 2021.
Although the agreement was a reasonable solution to the crisis, and was welcomed by the international community as a "positive step" that restores hope for an imminent breakthrough to the tanker crisis, it was met with some skepticism regarding the Houthis' seriousness to abide by it, especially by the legitimate Yemeni government and the coalition supporting it led Saudi Arabia. Observers also considered that the agreement was another gain for the group and would encourage it to continue its rigid negotiating approach to exploit the tanker crisis politically and economically. However, the Houthis' approval of the agreement, at the time, appeared to have come with reluctance. They indicated that it came out of "our keenness to prevent an environmental disaster in the Red Sea, despite the refusal of the UNOPS team to agree to provide a nitrogen generator as a suitable alternative to the inert gas system among the equipment that will be brought in to carry out the urgent assessment and maintenance process." They claimed that the focus of the UNOPS team was "limited to conducting maintenance that prevents oil leakage from the floating tank." These statements reflect the Houthi group's insistence on the necessity of full maintenance of the tanker with the aim of re-operating it at a later time.
Although more than 8 months have passed since the UN-Houthi agreement on the “scope of work” document for the UN mission of experts, international and regional efforts have not succeeded in bridging the gap of mistrust and resolving the outstanding issues in a way that effectively sets the ground for the arrival of the UN mission. It is not yet possible to predict the possibility of the mission coming or not in the short term, in light of the two sides continuing to exchange accusations, which have recently increased. In sum, the developments and positions of stakeholders regarding the tanker crisis, after the agreement, can be summarized as follows:
Looking at the FSO SAFER oil tanker crisis, one could expect three trajectories:
Summary and Conclusions
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