Middle East, Environment

Decaying oil tanker poses potential catastrophe to Yemen

Fears grow of possible leakage of 1.1 million barrels of crude oil from Safer tanker

Mohammed Alragawi   | 17.06.2021
Decaying oil tanker poses potential catastrophe to Yemen


A decaying oil tanker threatening to spill 1.1 million barrels of crude oil off Yemen’s coast is leaving the war-torn country at the risk of an environmental and humanitarian catastrophe.

The Safer oil tanker has been moored in the Red Sea since Houthi rebels captured the coastal province of Hudaydah in 2015, amid fears of the possible leakage of an estimated 1.1 million barrels of light crude oil, about four times the 260,000 barrels that spilled from the Exxon Valdez in Alaska in 1989.

The vessel is a floating storage and offloading (FSO) terminal that was used as an offshore platform for ships loading crude oil from the Marib-Ras Isa pipeline.

Regional countries as Jordan have raised deep concerns about the ship, describing it as a “ticking time-bomb”.

“Authorities had taken strict measures to prepare for any oil spill from the oil tanker docked at Bab al-Mandab Strait,” Muhammad al-Salman, director of the Jordan Maritime Authority, said on Monday.

Jordanian authorities have discussed the issue with countries bordering the Red Sea in an effort to defuse the impending crisis.

“Any oil spill has repercussions on the marine environment and would threaten tourism and economic facilities on the beaches overlooking the Red Sea, including the Aqaba beach,” al-Salman said.

Last week, Yemeni Foreign Minister Ahmed Awad bin Mubarak met with EU Political and Security Committee to discuss the environmental danger posed by the floating oil tanker.

He called on the EU countries to play a “greater role and mobilize all international efforts” to shed more light on the looming disaster.

Rosie Dyas, UK Government Arabic spokesperson to the Middle East and North Africa, underlined the importance of resolving the vessel problem.

“Neglecting means the possibility of a massive oil spill into the Red Sea, which will exacerbate the dire humanitarian situation in Yemen and cause unprecedented damage to regional marine life,” she tweeted.

Political extortion

Last month, Yemen’s permanent delegate to the UN, Abdullah al-Saadi, called on the UN Security Council to exert maximum pressure on Houthi rebels to “prevent the Safer oil tanker from being used for political extortion and allow the United Nations inspection team to conduct necessary assessments.”

Representatives of France, UK, and the US also called on the Houthis to grant the UN technical team immediate access to carry out necessary assessments, or otherwise take responsibility for an ecological catastrophe.

Ateq Jarallah, a Yemeni researcher, believes that Houthi rebels are using the floating ship as an “in-hand bomb to threaten Saudi Arabia and the international community to agree to their terms”.

“The Houthis say they are ready to allow the ship to be maintained, but this issue is related to the economic factor of the war in Yemen,” Jarallah told Anadolu Agency. “There is a dispute over the ship's cargo of oil and which party will take possession of it.”

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) managed to reach two agreements with Houthi rebels in July and November 2020 to grant the UN team access to the tanker, but decisions were never implemented.

“No mission has been able to deploy, mainly because Ansar Allah (Houthi) authorities, while agreeing in principle to such an operation, are reluctant to provide assurances it can proceed,” Reena Ghelani, director for Operations and Advocacy at the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said in her briefing to the UN Security Council on June 3.

In the same briefing to the Security Council, UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen warned that “millions of people could be exposed to harmful pollution if an explosion were to occur onboard, with severe health impacts for vulnerable populations.”

“An oil spill would have negative effects on the lives of people already going through the worst humanitarian crisis in the world,” she stressed.

In addition to the devastating consequences on the marine life in the region, an oil spill or explosion of the tanker could severely restrict the movement of vessels through the Red Sea, disrupting one of the busiest commercial routes in the world.

“There is an external player, Iran in particular, trying to harm Saudi Arabia by maintaining the ship’s condition as it is, because if the vessel explodes, it would directly threaten Saudi Arabia’s environment and economy,” Jarallah clarified.

There is also a potential for spilled oil to drift and impact neighboring countries, including Djibouti, Eritrea and Saudi Arabia.

Fisheries along the Red Sea coast of Yemen would likely be severely impacted, leading to hardship for fishing communities and substantial economic losses.

“Inaction could result in $20 billion in damage, which could reach well beyond the Red Sea,” al-Saadi noted.

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