FSO SAFER: An Ongoing Crisis

EPC | 11 Aug 2021

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.

Post-Agreement Developments

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:

  • On February 2, 2021, the United Nations said it was very concerned by "indications" that the Houthi authorities were considering a “review” of their formal approval of the mission to deploy to the FSO Safer oil tanker. Stéphane Dujarric, Spokesman for the UN Secretary-General, revealed that Houthi officials have advised the UN to "pause certain preparations pending the outcome of such process, which would create further delays to the mission." He indicated that the Houthis had failed to respond to multiple UN requests to provide a letter with security assurances to facilitate the leasing of technically equipped service vessels, which are required for the mission and without which the cost would go up.
  • The Houthis had tried to preempt Dujarric's statements by saying that the continued delay is on the part of the United Nations. Deputy Foreign Minister in their unrecognized government, Hussein Al-Ezzi, said that the United Nations submitted to them “additional requests outside the agreement and far from the agreed-upon framework,” adding: “We have informed the United Nations of the need to respect the agreements, especially that its new demands are related to its financial relationship with insurance companies. We distance ourselves from getting involved in things that do not concern us." Implicitly, Al-Ezzi acknowledged his group’s move to review its approval of the agreement when he said, “In light of the developments in the US hostile position towards the Yemeni people, we are currently making unremitting efforts to ensure that there is no suspicious connection between the [UN] team and Washington” (Houthi-run Saba Agency, January 28, 2021). Al-Ezzi's statement came, at the time, days after Washington listed his group on terrorist lists, which indicates the Houthis' tendency to keep the tanker crisis open and use it as a bargaining chip whenever they find an opportunity to do so.
  • In late February, the United Nations said that the Houthis had submitted additional requests and had not granted visas to the UN expert team. On the other hand, the Houthis stressed that what the United Nations portrays as "additional requests" are in fact agreed upon from the outset and there is no justification for their imposition by the UNOPS. They said that these requests relate to the need for them to be informed of all the details and for them to have a team supervising the maintenance work along with the United Nations team, and for the latter to photograph those works that are taking place underwater. With regard to the United Nations accusing them of not granting the experts entry visas, they claimed that it [UN] “did not present the final list of experts until February 14, and on two occasions it replaced a number of them with new ones and provided expired passports to another number of them.” The Houthis renewed their commitment to the agreement, calling on the United Nations to "show seriousness in implementing it and cease making misleading accusations and statements."
  • On April 9, the two parties [the United Nations and the Houthis] expressed optimism after they had "constructive discussions" on logistical issues and outstanding security arrangements. But on June 1, the Houthis said efforts to resolve the tanker crisis had reached a “dead end,” citing a UNOPS submission of a work plan that “eliminated most of the agreed-upon urgent maintenance work, leaving only the assessment work, on the pretext that time and funding were not enough for maintenance. They said that "much of the assessment work has also been retracted and turned into mere visual examinations that are not subject to any recognized standards."
  • The Houthi group’s announcement about the failure of the agreement prompted the UN Security Council to hold two sessions, one of them closed, on June 3, the second time since July 2020 that the council convenes to discuss the tanker crisis. In a statement after the closed session, the members of the UN Security Council urged the Houthis "to facilitate unconditional and safe access for UN experts to conduct a comprehensive and impartial assessment and initial repair mission without further delay". While holding the Houthis responsible for the tanker's situation, the 15-member council expressed "grave concern about the increasing risk of the tanker's rupture or explosion, which would cause an environmental, economic, maritime and humanitarian disaster for Yemen and the region." However, President Hadi's government considered the Security Council statement "a step below the level of a serious environmental and humanitarian threat." The Minister of Water and Environment in President Hadi’s government, Tawfiq Al-Sharjabi, said: “The council did not adequately help Yemen and the region to get out of this disaster. It [the council] must issue a new international resolution supplementing its decisions regarding the “Safer” oil tanker, including an applicable mechanism on the ground to ensure the immediate unloading of oil from the tanker."
  • While other countries, led by the United States, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, have intensified their efforts and actions to push for the removal of obstacles to sending the UN mission, Iran said that it is ready to contribute to "removing the threat posed by the tanker." Senior Adviser to the Iranian Foreign Minister, Ali Asghar Khaji, announced during his meeting with the [former] United Nations Special Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, on June 8, that his country had presented a “proposed plan to eliminate the risk of environmental pollution, which would be caused by the leakage of oil from the floating storage and offloading unit (FSO) Safer vessel," according to the Iranian Fars news agency.
  • On July 15, the Houthis accused the UN of “procrastinating, wasting time, and wasting donor funds allocated to the project on fruitless meetings and discussions, at a time when the situation of FSO Safer became worse than it was when the agreement was signed, and with it, the prospects of an environmental disaster in the Red Sea rose". They claimed that, after the UNOPS had "pledged to them [in June 2021] to submit an alternative plan in accordance with the agreement", it had handed them the new plan, which "included the same previous plan that did not conform to the agreement with only the document date changed". Meanwhile, the United Nations stressed that it would continue its efforts to persuade the Houthis to agree to give the expert mission an access to the tanker's site, clearly indicating that they were focusing on the full maintenance of the ship, which could not be done before assessing its current status. On July 27th, the Deputy Spokesman for the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Farhan Haq, described the Houthi statements as disappointing.
  • In an interview with the Kuwait News Agency (KUNA) in mid-July, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the legitimate Yemeni government, Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak, accused the Houthi group of "using the tanker for political blackmail, as a barricade and a time bomb to threaten the region and the world." He added that the Houthi group "is betting on resuming the export of oil again using the "Safer" tanker, even though its operational life expired decades ago."

Possible Trajectories

Looking at the FSO SAFER oil tanker crisis, one could expect three trajectories:

  1. The continuation of the status quo with the tanker's condition seeing further deterioration. Based on the current situation, this scenario suggests that the Houthis are not in the process of providing real guarantees and facilities that would allow the United Nations to deploy the mission of experts, at least in the short term. The group shows some reservations and doubts regarding the mission's tasks, which explains its insistence on having a team affiliated with it alongside the international team of experts in the mission. It also seeks to use the talks with the United Nations and the concerns of the international community about the danger posed by the tanker as an opportunity to ensure the full maintenance of the tanker for later reuse. It wants to continue using the tanker crisis as a bargaining chip, especially in the event that the possibility of its opponents withdrawing from the Stockholm Agreement increases in the future. Consequently, the foregoing will cause more wear to an already-dilapidated ship, and increase the chances of oil leakage, fire, or explosion.
  2. This scenario assumes that new understandings are reached, according to which the Houthis will be convinced and actually begin to facilitate the arrival of the UN expert mission. It is possible that some developments that raise the likelihood of an explosion or oil leakage from the tanker, such as the recurring incident of seawater leakage into the tanker, may lead to increased and concerted international and regional efforts. These efforts may lead to adopting a more serious and assertive international stance towards the Houthis and push them to lower their requests and expectations regarding the tasks of the UN team of experts, especially their emphasis on obtaining the largest amount of maintenance, assessment, and equipment that may allow them to reuse the tanker later. Otherwise, the Houthis' continued adherence to their demands and requests regarding the tanker could bring them some gains, in return for their willingness to cooperate seriously with the United Nations to reduce the risk of a leak, pending the implementation of a permanent solution. This is especially true because the Houthis are in a stronger negotiating position if the international community and Houthi opponents are to avoid a disaster at all costs.
  3. This scenario assumes that the crisis will reach a point of no return, and the oil tanker will start leaking or exploding. The continued international inaction and Houthi intransigence could lead to a disaster at any moment and without warning. In the event of a disaster, it would not be useful at the time to hold the Houthi group or any of the parties responsible for what happened. It will also be very difficult to contain the repercussions of the disaster, despite statements by the United Nations, the Regional Organization for the Conservation of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden and the International Maritime Organization that they are ready and coordinated to develop contingency plans, in the event of an oil spill from the tanker.

Summary and Conclusions

  • Although more than 8 months have passed since the United Nations and the Houthi group agreed on a “scope of work document” for a UN expert mission that is supposed to assess and make necessary preliminary repairs to the “Safer” oil tanker, neither international nor regional efforts have succeeded in bridging the gap of mistrust and resolving the outstanding issues between the two sides in a way that effectively prepares the UN mission to deploy. Until this moment, it remains difficult to predict the chances of the mission coming or not, especially since the two sides have not stopped exchanging accusations, which have recently increased.
  • The continuation of the Safer oil tanker crisis, and the worsening of the ship's situation, remains the most likely scenario so far. However, the scenario of reaching new understandings in which the Houthis are convinced and actually begin to facilitate the arrival of the UN mission remains possible, despite its extreme difficulty. It is not unlikely that Iran will provide the Houthis with some experts to carry out some light emergency repairs to the tanker, or at least make some promises to do so, in order to encourage them to keep the crisis as it is now, and turn it into a source of regional and international concern for as long as possible.

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