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Yemen’s Safer: The Floating Bomb

By: Khaled A. BaRahma

The international community has failed to address the looming environmental, economic, and political threats in Yemen after giving Houthi rebels control over the ports in Hodeidah governorate on humanitarian grounds as part of the December 2018 Stockholm Agreement. The decaying Safer oil tanker sitting offshore as a “floating bomb” waiting to explode.

According to, the Safer Floating Storage/Production facility is located on the Red Sea, 7 kilometers away from Houthi-held Ras Issa Port and 60 kilometers north of Hodeida City's port, Floating storage and offloading (FSO) tankers are owned by the state-controlled Safer Exploration and Production Operations Company (SEPOC) and have a direct connection to the government-controlled SEPOC oil fields in Marib via a 438-km pipeline. In 2014, the Houthis seized the Safer and nearby territory, and it currently only holds less than half its total capacity, approximately 1.2 million barrels (over 150.000 tons), and hasn't been maintained for over five years. A high level of humidity and high temperature, as well as lack of maintenance and Houthis' refusal to allow UN inspectors to assess the situation, resulted in numerous failures to perform. The likelihood of an explosion and catastrophic spill in the Red Sea if things continue to deteriorate is very real, and it will have far-reaching consequences far beyond Yemen. According to the Yemeni Ministry of Oil and Minerals, the tanker has been covered with rust, and inert gas that prevents the tanks from accumulating inflammable gases has leaked out.

The UN Security Council (UNSC) on a regular basis addresses about the grave consequences in the event the Safer collapses or explodes according to the Yemeni delegation at the UN. A video has been produced by the Yemeni government in order to highlight the potential humanitarian and environmental risks for the broader Red Sea region. In contrast to recent spills of over 20,000 tons of diesel in Russia's Ambarnaya River or Alaska's 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, a fuel leak from the Safer would be far more devastating.

Potential Problems

The first problem, if there were a spill, would be that it would pollute the Red Sea, create toxic gases, damage coral reefs, and marine life, and destroy fish habitat, all in an environment that supports corals and 600 kinds of fish and invertebrates. The fishing industry's recovery from a spill could take two and a half decades. Two-thirds, the suspension of fishing would hurt over 1.7 million people who depend on the fisheries as a source of income, and toxic gases would impact everyday life, including farming in adjacent areas. Fishing would be suspended in the region affecting about 1.7 million people who rely on fisheries for their income, and the toxic gases would have a significant impact on everyday life. According to the UK's ambassador to Yemen Mr. Michael Aron, over 50,000 fishermen would lose their source of sustenance, and approximately 3.20 million farmers would see their crops destroyed in a war-ravaged country.

The second problem, as a result of the spill, Hodeida's ports may be closed for several months. Several times in 2018, the UK, along with NGOs and the international community, put significant pressure on the Houthis to halt the offensive several times as part of a humanitarian effort, The coalition-backed forces were winning the battle so they gave in to their threat to destroy the ports. As the UN envoy and the UK exerted every diplomatic effort to prevent [Hodeida] nature disaster, the operation was a single-handed success. As a result of that report, the UN envoy falsely told the press that the Houthis have agreed to withdraw from the ports if only the military operation would end. Currently, the Houthis are holding the tanker hostage and no amount of pressure [of the international community] can persuade them to allow the UN to fix the tanker," said Yemeni human rights activist Baraa Shaiban. With few options available to them, however, the Houthis are likely to suffer from shortages of fuel, commercial goods, and humanitarian supplies, driving up commodity prices and exacerbating problems of human security and economic instability in Houthis’ areas. In addition to decreasing their direct and indirect revenues, a closure would likely increase their willingness to cooperate. UNSC officials do not appear to have taken advantage of their leverage to pressure the Houthis, but rather have failed to use theirs to avert a disaster which would affect both parties.

The Third Problem, The Red Sea poses a high risk of fire, which could disrupt trade, increase transportation costs, and delay goods shipment on this strategic maritime route. Yemen may face a profound humanitarian crisis as a result of the spill. A spill could also negatively affect coastlines in Djibouti, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and Sudan, as well as provide a disruption to international maritime supply chains.

The political system of Safer

UN Office for Project Services requests have been directly and indirectly denied by the Houthis for years, In the first case, Safer could "deploy [an assessment team] within three weeks," to conduct an inspection. For as long as possible, the Houthis sought to keep the issue unresolved in an attempt to increase their leverage with the government of Yemen and the international community, including the UN Security Council and its permanent members. An anonymous diplomat said the Houthis asked the UN to send both an inspection and maintenance team at once, a request that seemed illogical and was ultimately declined. Despite the growing risk of disaster, the Houthis have "played the strings of negotiations to gain time and leverage", according to the same diplomat. Over the months, the special envoy briefed the UNSC on a monthly basis, amid futile negotiations and false promises. By using the Safer to threaten Red Sea littoral states and regional maritime routes in November 2019, the Houthis succeeded in getting local, regional, and international actors to play by their rules. In spite of the sanctions that keep them from selling the crude themselves, the Houthis demanded payment for the oil still stored on board, and the decline in oil prices since the start of COVID-19 reduced its value from approximately $79 million to less than half of that figure. The government believes that the crude oil stored on the tanker belongs to SEPOC. The government would like to use any funds collected to reduce the firm's debt, as well as to pay salaries to its staff and assist with maintenance costs.

The UN had initially proposed that it would facilitate the extraction and sale of SEPOC's oil in exchange for the proceeds of the sales being directed to the payment of civil servants during negotiations. The standoff has not diminished despite several years of effort - much as the Hodeida Agreement, in general. Martin Griffiths, UN's special envoy, proposed to use federal revenues from oil imports to pay civil servants to the UN-monitored "special account" in the Hodeida branch of the central bank, but it has proven unworkable. As an example, the Houthis stole 54 million riyals (around $35 billion) from the accounts in May 2020. Among the most important recipients of the fund were civil servants in Hodeida. It became a particular concern following the Stockholm Agreement, in which Hodeida was left in an uncertain position with no peace, no war, and no clear view of the future.

With its halt to the coalition-backed offensive for Hodeida, the halt to the effort testified of the UN's resolve to act credibly - If it had continued, the power balance would have been changed, Humanitarian assistance would have improved, and could possibly have eliminated the conflict caused by the Houthis Safer crisis - The Houthis have become more confident to use strong-arm tactics and extortion. Houthis' threats to bombard Hodeida forced the UN to accept their threats as reality after an attempt to raise civilian costs and thwart humanitarian intervention. The Stockholm Agreement was signed as a result of concern about the humanitarian implications of the firefight. Extortion policies of the rebels - Using money obtained from aid looting to finance the group's war efforts was a strategy that worked well in the humanitarian domain - As well as controlling Hodeida's ports. Therefore, the Houthis believe the same strategy will succeed again and again.

There is no doubt that the UNSC's inaction has helped to sustain this dynamic, but it is also entirely necessary for weaponizing a potential disaster. As a result of these factors and the possible ramifications UN official who coordinates emergency relief and humanitarian affairs, Mark Lowcock, during his testimony on the UNSC's lack of action, he said he has brought up Safer "ten times" in the last year.

Potential Solutions

UNSC Resolution 2511, issued by the body on February 29, 2020, urged "the Houthis to immediately allow UN-certified experts to assess the tanker's condition, conduct any necessary repairs, and make recommendations for the safe extraction of the oil in close coordination with the organization." It's positive that such clear language was used, which demonstrates awareness of the serious environmental, economic, and humanitarian consequences, but let's not forget the additional four concrete steps that must be taken now, on top of inspecting the Safer, to avoid a major explosion or rupture.

1. As no cooperation is forthcoming from the Houthis, the UNSC should act decisively to penalize the group for its reckless behavior and issue a clear, detailed, and firm condemnation. To do so, it is imperative that it signals that it will extend its list of targeted sanctions that target individuals and entities that impede the inspection, repair, and recovery of oil from the Safer.

2. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China, must step up diplomatic and political pressure on the Houthis, both Indirectly and directly, to persuade them to cooperate and stop trying to weaponize the Safer.. As a result of the recent spill in Siberia, Russia understands the catastrophic implications of a possible spill more than any other country and has reasonably good relationships with all players within the country. In this respect, Moscow can help, as can Washington and London.

3. Increasing attention would assist in resolving the Safer, in contrast to what the UK's ambassador has advocated, we should resolve the crisis once and for all before making any political settlements: As of 2018, there have been no peace talks since the Stockholm consultations, and there is no reason to continue to wait.

Lastly, in my personal perspective, OSESGY [stand for the Office of the Special Envoy of the Secretary General for Yemen] has to start to prioritize the situation of Safer from all aspects, Griffiths is doing no progress Neither he nor the international community are doing anything about this situation which is under his watch. Saudi Arabia, along with states that border the Red Sea, can step up diplomatic efforts to work on a one-time defusing of this floating bomb. It is the major powers' responsibility to make sure that the oil of Safer is used as the first time in over six months that SEPOC has paid its debt and civil servants have received their salaries in Hodeida. In the event the Houthis behave badly after the inspection, it is necessary to assess the situation. The objective of the UN-monitored special account in Hodeida is to reimburse the Houthis' seized money and pay salaries to them, as well as repaying the UN monitored special account in Hodeida. There are several ways to extract oil, pumping it into another tanker would also be an option. Otherwise, pulling the operation of Safer’s oil to the port of nearby, if Houthi resistance persists, could be the right choice.




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