The Brinksmanship of a SAFER Disaster

The Sana’a Center Editorial

It is sadly common for belligerents to show wanton disregard for the health and welfare of civilian populations during war. What makes the warring parties in Yemen exceptional in this regard is the sheer scale of devastation they are willing to visit upon their fellow Yemenis in the pursuit of relatively trivial gains. 

As the Sana’a Center reported in May, there is a decrepit oil terminal moored in the Red Sea offshore of Hudaydah governorate loaded with more than a million barrels of crude aboard. Since the onboard ventilation system failed four years ago aboard the FSO SAFER – an oil tanker that has acted as a marine export terminal since the 1980s – highly explosive gases emitted from the oil have likely been building up in the holding tanks, effectively making the terminal a floating bomb. A limited-circulation international assessment made available to the Sana’a Center in September reported that a spill at the FSO SAFER terminal could be “potentially catastrophic … with ecological, economic and human health impacts all highly likely to occur on a large scale.” Specifically, the report stated that within a week of a spill some 500,000 Yemenis could be affected, with food, fuel and water supplies compromised, the fishing industry crippled and pollutants spread down the coast; in the event of an explosion or fire, some 9 million Yemenis could be left breathing the toxic fumes.

The risk posed by FSO SAFER, however, has been fodder for brinkmanship between the armed Houthi movement and the internationally recognized Yemeni government, with the most important stumbling block being how to divide revenues from any potential sale of the oil once it is offloaded, estimated at some $80 million. Approaching the terminal requires the Houthis’ permission, as it is anchored off of their territory. The UN has been attempting to negotiate this permission in order to assess the vessel’s condition and determine how to secure its cargo. In August, however, the Houthi leadership reneged on a commitment to allow the UN assessment to begin. Senior Houthi officials, speaking with the Sana’a Center in September, said they were willing to have the oil offloaded, but only on the precondition that an agreement were already in place regarding revenues from its sale. 

The Houthis are apprehensive that if a UN assessment found there was an urgent need to remove the oil, they would be forced to allow the oil to be offloaded without a deal in place. There is, however, an avenue to resolve the situation and mitigate the risk: have the funds from the oil sale deposited in a bank account overseen by the UN, or another neutral third party. The UN-negotiated Hudaydah agreement laid out a model for using revenues from that port to pay Yemeni civil servants, many of whom haven’t received a regular salary since 2016; a similar model could be used to channel funds generated from the sale of the FSO SAFER oil to pay the country’s public employees. 

This compromise should be acceptable to both the Houthis and the Yemeni government, if the appropriate diplomatic pressure is brought to bear. The Yemeni government has never been more dependent on Saudi Arabia, having been routed from its interim capital of Aden in an August coup; the Houthi leadership, meanwhile, entered into a tenuous cease-fire and de-escalation process with Riyadh in September, which is far more of a priority than the FSO SAFER. This places Saudi Arabia in a key position with both necessary parties to push for a deal on the oil terminal. Given Saudi Arabia’s multi-billion dollar infrastructure investments along its Red Sea Coast, which would be impacted by any spill at FSO SAFER, it also has an incentive to see the situation defused. The UN and other international actors similarly have an incentive to encourage Riyadh in this direction and avert a possible environmental catastrophe.

 


This editorial appeared in Aramco’s Ashoura – The Yemen Review, September 2019

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