A major environmental, humanitarian and economic disaster lies in wait in the Red Sea - and there's only a tiny window of opportunity to prevent it.

An internationalised civil war, food insecurity, malnutrition, extreme poverty, climate change, Covid-19, and other deadly diseases have left Yemen coping with numerous humanitarian crises and emergencies for years. Now, there is a new disaster waiting to happen.

A neglected vessel, the FSO SAFER, is anchored within five miles of Hudaidah, an important Yemeni port on the country’s Red Sea coast. Moored there since 1988, this Yemeni state-owned tanker, which the Houthis took control of in March 2015, is decaying. The ship has received no maintenance for more than five years. 

Described as a “floating bomb”, the 1,188-foot FSO SAFER has approximately 1.14 million barrels of crude oil that risk spilling. To provide some perspective, that is four times as much oil as the Exxon Valdez tanker spilled in Alaska’s Prince William Sound region back in 1989. That disaster from 31 years ago, which resulted in over 1,300 miles of shoreline being damaged, continues causing ecological harm to this day.

So, regarding the FSO SAFER, the stakes are, to say the least, extremely high.

According to the United Nations Environment Program’s executive director, the 45-year-old rusting vessel sinking or exploding would lead to decades of ecological destruction. This scenario would threaten 1,200 species of fish, 300 species of coral reefs, as well as the biodiversity of 115 islands. Because the oil is light weight, much of it would spread far quicker across the water than heavy oil would. The cost of the clean-up would be in the billions.

Such an environmental disaster would result in the Red Sea’s ports and shipping lanes closing. For the millions of Yemenis who depend on international aid, which can only be delivered via Yemeni ports, such a catastrophe could produce unimaginably disastrous consequences. 

But Yemenis are not the only people who would suffer from this potential catastrophe. Given how many desalination plants exist on both the Arabian and African sides of the Red Sea, the FSO SAFER’s current condition poses a grave danger to numerous countries. Depending on the timing of a potential spill, which impacts currents, the damage could reach as far away as the Suez Canal and the Strait of Hormuz.

There is no easy or simple way to resolve this crisis in the making, although doing so is absolutely vital. Under ideal circumstances, inspectors from the UN could appraise the FSO SAFER’s condition so a salvage team could offload its oil to other vessels before bringing the vessel to a port to be inspected and scrapped. 

Ugly politics of warfare

The realities of Yemen’s war between Houthis on one side and forces loyal to the Saudi-backed government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and the Riyadh-led Arab coalition on the other make this process dangerous. The continuation of this war makes it increasingly risky for a salvage team to do the job which is necessary to prevent such an oil spill. After all, this vessel is situated in an extremely militarised body of water.

While lacking an agreement on how to deal with this looming crisis, the different sides in Yemen are playing the blame game. Saudi media is busy accusing the Houthis of having “actively prevented international engineers from boarding FSO SAFER to carry out essential repairs.” 

Various reports allege that the Houthis are exploiting the “floating bomb” for political purposes, using the vessel as a “bargaining chip” to gain control of the oil on board (worth roughly USD 40 million—down from USD 80 million before oil prices collapsed earlier this year) to finance salaries of employees within the de facto Houthi proto-state. The Hadi government’s position is that the oil proceeds should be invested in projects across Yemen to help the country better cope with humanitarian emergencies. 

Hussain Al Bukhaiti, a 'pro-Houthi' journalist, recently said that blame for the FSO SAFER not being maintained belongs on the Saudi-led coalition’s doorstep. Prior to March 2015, regular maintenance was done on the vessel. Thus, he argues that the Saudi military intervention in Yemen has led to the FSO SAFER’s decaying. The Houthis have also been dissatisfied with the company which the UN has tried to use to inspect the vessel.

A major test for the international community

Although the UN has been deeply concerned about the FSO SAFER’s situation for years, the threat of an environmental catastrophe has recently grown increasingly imminent. Amid this summer, the potential for fires are much higher, especially due to the fact that the ship’s boiler system ceases to produce sufficient gas to protect the oil and the cargo tanks. 

Recently, the Houthis agreed to allow the UN permission to access the ship. Yet it is unclear what will happen, or when, as on several past occasions the UN has been granted authority, only to have that permission denied later on technical grounds. Put simply, the possibility of an explosion is growing as more time passes without anything being done. 

Ultimately, the UN has failed the Yemenis since 2015. Just last month, Riyadh successfully leveraged its financial resources to pressure the UN into removing Saudi Arabia from a UN blacklist of state and non-state actors responsible for killing and maiming children in conflicts (which the UN initially placed the Kingdom on in 2016) by threatening to cut off the Kingdom’s funding for the intergovernmental organisation. 

By giving in to this threat, the UN lost what credibility it previously had to serve any productive role in terms of mediating a settlement to the Yemeni crisis. There is no denying that if the international community cannot avert an ecological disaster off of Yemen’s Red Sea coast, there will be a new chapter in the book on UN failures in Yemen.   

Nonetheless, it is not too late to act. The international community — the UN, the US, the European Union, the African Union, the Gulf Cooperation Council, etc. — as well as the various Yemeni parties involved in the conflict still have an opportunity to prevent this ecological crisis from happening. At least they do for now. 

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