The devastating explosion at the port of Beirut, Lebanon, in August should instill a sense of urgency among all stakeholders in Yemen regarding the gigantic floating bomb just offshore of Hudaydah governorate, officially known as the FSO Safer oil terminal. Like the thousands of tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate that had been stuffed into a warehouse at the east end of the Mediterranean in 2013 and silently loomed as a threat against the Lebanese capital for more than six years, the estimated 1.15 million barrels of crude aboard the derelict Red Sea oil terminal, 7.5 kilometers offshore of Ras Issa, have been left unattended for more than five years. During that time, seawater has leaked into the vessel while highly combustible off-gases have likely built up in the holding chamber, risking explosion and an oil spill of historic proportions.
Should the vessel rupture and large amounts of oil spill into the sea, there would be wide-ranging and interrelated environmental, economic and humanitarian impacts. Immediately at risk would be the Red Sea’s 2,000-kilometer-long coral reef system, one of the most significant in the world and home to an estimated 1,100 fish species. This ecosystem feeds and provides livelihoods for hundreds of thousands of Yemenis, through fishing and related activities. In the event of an explosion and the crude catching fire, the westerly winds could expose millions inland to toxic fumes. An oil slick could also force the closure of Hudaydah and Saleef ports along Yemen’s western coast roughly 50 kilometers from where the FSO Safer is moored, with these ports serving as the entry point for most of the country’s commercial and humanitarian imports, representing a lifeline for millions of people. Meanwhile, the Bab al-Mandab Strait at the south end of the Red Sea is the gateway between the Indian Ocean and Europe and one of the busiest waterways in the world, meaning the impacts of an FSO Safer disaster would likely spread far beyond the region, given the potential disruption of global trade.
It is the enormous scale of what is at risk that has created such a valuable hostage for the armed Houthi movement. The hostage game is one the Houthis have refined during the ongoing conflict, having used the threat of denying aid agencies access to populations at risk of famine as leverage to silence those agencies while they pillaged vast sums of money and supplies from the relief effort. With the FSO Safer, well within range of Houthi artillery onshore, the group controls access to the vessel – control that repeatedly has allowed its leadership to rebuff United Nations’ efforts to carry out even a status assessment of the oil terminal. The seriousness of the threat, and the Houthis’ intentional delays in having the situation addressed, have raised it to the highest levels of policy making in the world, including discussions at the UN Security Council. This, however, has only reinforced the Houthi leadership’s belief that the oil terminal is a card they can leverage for concessions in other matters during any prospective negotiations regarding the wider armed conflict.
As recently as August, the group reneged on a commitment to allow UN inspectors onboard. In a subsequent media interview, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, a senior figure in the group, explained that they had denied the inspectors access because the UN did not agree to a list of Houthi conditions. These included a demand that the inspectors should be accompanied by personnel and equipment to carry out any needed repairs there and then. In reality, the Houthis are paranoid that the outcome of the assessment has already been predetermined and will call for the removal of the oil from the terminal. For its part, the UN, while it agreed to carry out any light repairs that were immediately possible, could not agree to the Houthi conditions, given that major fixes to the vessel are likely necessary and the UN would need to know the type and extent of these repairs before it could even issue the tender to carry out the work.
Additionally, given the age of the FSO Safer – originally a single-hulled oil tanker built in 1976 and retrofitted for the Yemeni government in the mid-1980s to be a “Floating Storage and Offloading” terminal – and the length of time it has gone without maintenance, safely securing the crude onboard is likely impossible. What to do with the revenues from selling the oil were it removed, however, has also been a sticking point. The Houthis’ principal rival in the ongoing war, the internationally recognized Yemeni government, still officially owns the oil terminal and the crude in its bowels. Various estimates had pegged it at between US$50 million and US$80 million in value, which inspired bickering between the warring parties over what to do with the money and scuttled previous UN-led attempts to broker a deal regarding the oil terminal. However, time has almost certainly degraded the crude, which in concert with slumping global oil prices would mean its value today would be only a fraction of previous estimates.
Greed may have thus have receded as a factor, though it remains unshakably the case that neither of Yemen’s main warring parties act like they have the slightest responsibility for preventing the massive catastrophe that could befall their country and the region. In his interview, Al-Houthi summed up his zero-sum view of a potential disaster, noting that its impacts “would all cause more damage to them than to us.” The Yemeni government’s disregard for the wellbeing of the country’s citizens has been no less obscene, with its concern seeming to extend no farther than heaping blame on the Houthis for their handling of the situation. Indeed, a senior government official, speaking privately with the Sana’a Center, essentially framed the government’s position as: “if it explodes, it’s not our fault.”
The UN or other international stakeholders who might intervene must be careful not to feed the Houthis’ demands for greater concessions through raising the stakes. With the right imagination and balance of diplomacy and pressure there is, however, a possible horizon of de-escalation by allowing the lords of this war to use a resolution to the Safer situation as a demonstration of their good will toward Yemenis – even if in reality their motivations would be entirely self-serving. An agreement committing any revenues from the oil’s sale to the pandemic response is one potential creative compromise to explore. Short of this or a similar such arrangement, an apocalypse will remain in wait on the Red Sea.
Previous Sana’a Center Editorials:
This editorial appeared in Hostage on the Red Sea – The Yemen Review, Summer Edition, July-August 2020.
- June 2020: Hadi Must Go
- May 2020: Will Yemen Survive COVID19?
- April 2020: The Drowning of Dissent
- March 2020: End the War Before the Pandemic
- January/February 2020: Humanitarian Agencies as Prisoners of War
- November 2019: The Minefield of Combating Corruption in Yemen
- October 2019: Signing Over Sovereignty
- September 2019: The Brinksmanship of a SAFER Disaster
- August 2019: Where Coalitions Come to Die
- July 2019: The March on Al-Mahra
- June 2019: War by Remote Control
- May 2019: A Houthi Masterclass in Dystopia
- April 2019: Yemen’s Game of Parliaments
- March 2019: Saudi Arabia’s ‘Deportation Storm’
- February 2019: The Apology of Aid
- The Yemen Annual Review 2018: Beyond the Brink
- November 2018: Yemen’s War Profiteers Are Potential Spoilers of the Peace Process
The Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies is an independent think-tank that seeks to foster change through knowledge production with a focus on Yemen and the surrounding region. The Center’s publications and programs, offered in both Arabic and English, cover diplomatic, political, social, economic, military, security, humanitarian and human rights related developments, aiming to impact policy locally, regionally, and internationally.