Having given Yemen’s Houthi rebels control over the ports of Hodeida governorate on humanitarian grounds as part of the December 2018 Stockholm Agreement, the international community has failed to address the looming environmental, economic, and political threats presented by the decaying Safer oil tanker sitting offshore — a “floating bomb” waiting to explode.
Moored on the Red Sea 7 km from the Houthi-held Ras Issa Port and 60 km north of the Hodeida city port, the floating storage and offloading (FSO) tanker — owned by the state’s Safer Exploration and Production Operations Company (SEPOC) — was used to transfer, store, and export oil and is directly linked to government-controlled SEPOC fields in Marib via a 438-km-long pipeline. Seized by the Houthis in 2014 along with nearby territory, the Safer currently holds less than half of its total capacity, at an estimated 1.2 million barrels of crude oil (over 150,000 tons), and last received maintenance over five years ago. The vessel has since fallen into disrepair and started to experience internal corrosion, owing in part to the high humidity levels and temperature, as well as the lack of maintenance and the Houthis’ rejection of a UN inspection assessment unless they are guaranteed the revenues from the oil onboard. Should things continue to deteriorate there is a real risk of an explosion or catastrophic spill in the Red Sea that will have a major impact far beyond Yemen. “Rust has covered parts of the tanker, and the inert gas that prevents the tanks from gathering inflammable gases has leaked out,” according to the Yemeni Ministry of Oil and Minerals.
The government of Yemen and its mission to the UN have regularly warned the UN Security Council (UNSC) of the grave implications should the Safer collapse or explode, going so far as to produce a video highlighting the potential environmental and humanitarian risks for the broader Red Sea region. A fuel leak from the Safer would be far more catastrophic than the recent spill of over 20,000 tons of diesel in the Ambarnaya River in Russia or even the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska.
First, a spill would pollute the Red Sea, generate toxic gases, damage coral reef and marine life, and destroy fish habitat — all in a “delicate marine ecosystem” that is home to “corals and 600 species of fish and invertebrates.” It could take as long as two-and-a-half decades for the fishing industry to recover from a spill.
Second, the suspension of fishing would affect some 1.7 million people across the region who rely on fisheries as a source of income, and toxic gases would impact day-to-day life, including farming in adjacent areas. In war-ravaged Yemen, the families of more than 60,000 fishermen would lose their source of sustenance and the crops of some 3.25 million farmers could be ruined, according to the UK’s ambassador to the country, Michael Aron.
Third, a spill could lead to the closure of Hodeida’s ports for several months. In 2018, the UK, alongside a coalition of NGOs and the international community, applied significant pressure to halt the Hodeida offensive several times on humanitarian grounds, giving in to the Houthis’ threat to destroy the ports if they lost the battle to coalition-backed forces. “The UN envoy and the UK put their entire diplomatic weight to prevent the [Hodeida] operation. The UN envoy made false claims that the Houthis have agreed to withdraw from the ports if only the military operation would stop. Today the Houthis are holding the oil tanker hostage and the entire international community cannot convince [the rebels] just to allow the UN to fix the ship,” said Yemeni civil rights activist Baraa Shaiban. The Houthis now have few alternatives available, however, and the closure of the port would likely lead to a shortage of fuel, commercial goods, and humanitarian supplies, resulting in a significant increase in commodities prices and exacerbating problems of economic and human security in populous Houthi-held areas. A closure would also likely reduce the Houthis’ revenues, both direct and indirect, which should be reason enough for them to cooperate. The problem is not that the UNSC lacks leverage with which to pressure the Houthis, but rather that the UN officials in charge of the Yemen file have not used it to avert an increasingly likely disaster — one which would also affect the Houthis.
Fourth, there would be a high risk of fire in the Red Sea, which would pose a threat to activities on this strategic maritime route, disrupting trade, increasing transportation costs, and delaying shipment of goods. A spillage could deepen the humanitarian crisis and economic difficulties in Yemen, as well as negatively affect various coastal areas, most notably in Djibouti, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and Sudan, and disrupt the global maritime supply chain.
The politics of the Safer
For years, the Houthis have directly and indirectly turned down requests from the UN Office for Project Services, which can “deploy [an assessment team] within three weeks,” to carry out an inspection of the Safer, for a variety of reasons. In a bid to increase their leverage with the government of Yemen and the international community, including the UNSC and its permanent members, the Houthis sought to keep the issue unresolved for as long as possible, in the belief that it gave them a wild card in negotiations. According to a diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity, the Houthis asked the UN to send both an inspection and a maintenance team at the same time — a request that makes little sense and one the UN eventually declined. “You cannot send a team of specialist doctors without diagnosing the disease first,” the same diplomat said, pointing out that the Houthis “played the strings of negotiations to gain time and leverage” despite the growing risk of disaster.
The case dragged on amid futile negotiations and false promises ahead of the monthly UN special envoy’s briefings to the UNSC. In November 2019, the Houthis used the Safer as a threat to regional maritime security routes and Red Sea littoral states, most notably their rival Saudi Arabia, to compel local, regional, and international actors to play by their rules. The Houthis have demanded to be paid for the oil still stored on the vessel, although sanctions bar them from selling it themselves, and the decline in oil prices since the onset of COVID-19 has seen its value fall from around $80 million to less than half of that. From the government’s perspective, the crude oil stored on the tanker belongs to SEPOC, and any sums collected should be used to relieve the firm’s debt, as well as pay salaries to its staff and help with maintenance costs.
During past negotiations, initial arrangements suggested that the UN would take the lead in facilitating the extraction and sale of SEPOC’s oil in exchange for directing the revenues to pay civil servants. However, several years on, there has been no sign of progress and the stand-off remains an issue — much like the Hodeida Agreement more broadly. In addition, the UN-monitored “special account” in the Hodeida branch of the central bank, which the UN’s special envoy, Martin Griffiths, proposed to use to collect customs revenues from oil imports to pay civil servants, has proved unfeasible. In May 2020, for instance, the Houthis plundered over 35 billion Yemeni riyals (around $54 million) from the account. It had been intended to pay the salaries of civil servants, most notably in Hodeida itself. This became a particular issue as a result of the Stockholm Agreement, which left Hodeida facing uncertainty with no peace, no war, and no clear path forward.
Having tested the UN’s resolve to take credible action against the group, the halt to the coalition-backed offensive for Hodeida — which had it continued would have changed the local balance of power, improved the humanitarian landscape, and may have resolved the Houthi-made Safer crisis — has emboldened the Houthis in their efforts to use extortion and strong-arm tactics. The Houthi pledge to bomb Hodeida, in an attempt to raise the civilian cost and block a humanitarian response, eventually compelled the UN to accept the Houthis’ threats as a reality. The potential humanitarian implications were used as a reason to stop the firefight, culminating in the Stockholm Agreement. The rebels’ policy of extortion — which worked well in the humanitarian domain, as was evident in the group’s use of diversion and looting of aid to finance its war efforts — also kept Hodeida’s ports under their control. The Houthis, therefore, see no reason why the same approach should not succeed again.
While this is a clear example of weaponizing a potential disaster and exploiting it for gains, the UNSC’s inaction has also helped to sustain the dynamic. Against this backdrop and in light of the potential implications, the UN’s under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, Mark Lowcock, said that he has mentioned the Safer to the UNSC “on 10 occasions over the last 12 months” in testimony on the council’s inaction.
What can be done?
On June 29, 2020, the UNSC reiterated its February 2020 resolution, 2511, calling on “the Houthis to immediately grant unconditional access for United Nations technical experts to assess the tanker’s condition, conduct any possible urgent repairs, and make recommendations for the safe extraction of the oil, ensuring close cooperation with the United Nations.” While such clear language is a step in the right direction and demonstrates awareness of the environmental, economic, and humanitarian stakes involved, there are four additional actionable steps, above and beyond inspecting the vessel, that must be taken now to avert a major rupture or explosion of the Safer.
First, in the absence of Houthi cooperation, the UNSC should hold the group accountable for its reckless behavior and condemn it in clear, detailed, and firm language. It must use the leverage it has strategically, such as signaling that it will extend the list of targeted sanctions against entities and individuals delaying or obstructing the inspection and repair of the Safer, as well as the extraction of its oil.
Second, the permanent UNSC members — the UK, the U.S., France, Russia, and China — must double down and exert additional diplomatic and political pressure on the Houthis, via both direct and backdoor channels, to convince them to cooperate and stop trying to weaponize the Safer. Russia, more than any country in recent times, understands the disastrous implications of a potential spillage, having experienced one recently in Siberia, and has relatively good ties with all players in the country. Moscow, like London and Washington, can help in this regard.
Third, greater attention should help to resolve the Safer crisis once and for all before any political settlement, contrary to what the UK ambassador has advocated: a solution during peace talks. Since the Stockholm consultations in 2018, there have been no peace talks and there is no reason to wait any longer for them. “I think that OSESGY [the Office of the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General for Yemen] should focus on [the Safer] as a top priority. Right now, [Griffiths] is not. This is happening on his and the international community’s watch and they are doing nothing about it,” Nadwa al-Dawsari told MEI. Simply put, the Safer crisis is real and it cannot wait to be resolved. Red Sea littoral states, including Saudi Arabia, can step up their diplomatic efforts to push for a one-time solution that defuses this floating bomb.
Finally, the UN and the major powers must ensure that the Safer’s oil is used, first and foremost, to relieve SEPOC’s debt and pay the salaries of civil servants in Hodeida for the first time in more than six months. Depending on an assessment of the situation after inspection and the Houthis’ behavior, and taking into account the objective of paying salaries and reimbursing the money seized by the Houthis from the UN-monitored special account in Hodeida, the extraction of oil could be done in several ways, including pumping it to another tanker or pulling the Safer to the nearest port, if there continues to be resistance from the Houthis.
A non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, Ibrahim Jalal is an independent Yemen and Gulf analyst and a co-founder of the Security Distillery Think Tank. The views expressed in this article are his own.
Photo by Hani Al-Ansi/picture alliance via Getty Images