Can a UN-coordinated US-Dutch plan defuse Safer’s ‘ticking time bomb’?

JEDDAH: The Safer saga continues with an attempt by the UN to raise funds to save the stricken vessel which has been anchored near Yemen’s Red Sea coast since 1988.

The plan is to raise $144 million, including $80 million to pay for offloading the oil cargo aboard the Safer. To that end, the governments of the United States and the Netherlands, represented by the Dutch Ambassador to the United States, Andre Haspels, jointly hosted a meeting on Friday attended by Special Envoy Tim Lenderking. United States for Yemen, and representatives of the diplomatic community in Washington.

“We urge public and private donors to consider generous contributions to help prevent a leak, spill or explosion, the effects of which would destroy livelihoods, tourism and commerce in one of the world’s vital waterways. world,” read a joint statement, referring to the abandoned ship. .

The objective of the UN-coordinated plan is to avert an economic, humanitarian and environmental disaster that could affect not only Yemen, where 17 million people depend on humanitarian aid, but also the entire region.

“The Safer is a ticking time bomb and it’s time to fix the problem,” political analyst Dr Hamdan Al-Shehri told Arab News.

“The ship has been dragging for seven years unattended. It is the responsibility of the international community to pressure the Houthis at all levels to resolve the many issues facing Yemen and Yemenis, including the Safer dispute.

The ship, rotting off the port of Ras Isa without any maintenance, is believed to contain 1.1 million barrels of oil, four times the amount that leaked into Prince William Sound in Alaska following of the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989.

Commissioned in 1976 as a tanker and converted a decade later to a floating storage and offloading (FSO) facility, the Safer ceased production, offloading and maintenance in 2015 with the eruption of war and the capture of western Yemen by the Houthis.

The ship is currently moored about 4.8 nautical miles off the coast of Hodeidah Governorate in Yemen. Given the constant deterioration of its structural integrity, there is an imminent risk of an oil spill due to leakage or explosion.

Damage to the Safer (above) raised fears of an impending oil spill due to a leak or explosion. (AFP/file photo)

In March, after years of on-and-off talks between the major parties involved, the Iran-aligned Houthis apparently agreed to allow the UN to offload oil stored in barrels on the Safer. Mohammed Ali Al-Houthi, the head of the Supreme Revolutionary Committee of the Houthis, confirmed the signing of a memorandum of understanding with the UN via Twitter.

The UN-coordinated plan, which is supported by the Yemeni government, consists of two operational components simultaneously. The first involves the installation of a long-term replacement for the Safer within 18 months, while the second involves the transfer of the oil cargo to a temporary vessel over a period of four months.

The UN intends to keep the Safer and temporary vessel in place until all oil is transferred to the permanent replacement vessel. Then the rusting ship would be towed to a yard and sold for scrap.

In April, Lenderking, Dutch Ambassador to Yemen Peter Derrek Hoff and United Nations Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen David Gressly visited the region as part of a UN-led mission to raise awareness about the threat posed by the Safer and raise funds for the UN plan. .

A month later, a program designed by Gressly to oversee UN attempts to raise $80 million from donors began. So far, however, the global body has only been able to raise $40 million.

Meanwhile, time is running out for the rescue plan.


* 181 million – Liters of oil stored in the decaying FSO Safer.

* 1.7 million – People in the fishing industry at risk in the event of a leak or explosion.

“If we do not receive sufficient funding urgently, the weather window to transfer oil will close,” said Auke Lootsma, resident representative of the United Nations Development Program in Yemen.

“By October, high winds and volatile currents make the operation more dangerous and increase the risk of vessel breakage.”

A massive Safer oil spill would devastate fishing communities on the Red Sea coast and wreak havoc on the water, reefs and mangroves of coastal states including Saudi Arabia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia and Yemen itself.

It would also lead to the disruption or even closure of the ports of Hodeidah and As Salif, which would significantly hamper commercial activity across Yemen and the country’s ability to receive humanitarian aid.

Either way, the cleanup cost alone is expected to be $20 million.

“When the Houthis seized power in this part of Yemen in 2015, they took over Safer but they didn’t have the know-how to maintain it,” Al-Shehri said. “Since then, they have been using the alarming structural state of the ship as a bargaining chip, with the aim of grabbing the proceeds of the oil sold on the market or selling the oil on the black market for further gain.”

Representatives of Saudi Arabia, Djibouti, Egypt, Jordan, Sudan and Yemen sent a letter in 2020 addressed to the President of the Security Council, drawing attention to the risks that floating cargo poses to the region. (Reuters/File photo)

He added: “As far as Safer is concerned, the Houthis will not agree to do the right thing easily, but with pressure they could do it. This would avoid a catastrophe whose repercussions would be felt thousands of kilometers away. The flow of humanitarian aid through the vital shipping lanes of the Bab Al-Mandeb Strait would be disrupted.

That said, Al-Shehri cited two developments – the signing of the memorandum between the Houthis and the two-month ceasefire currently in place, the first national truce since 2016 – as bodes well for Yemen’s future. In his view, opening the road to Taiz could help end the ongoing factional infighting and hopefully even the Houthi occupation.

“But to really show their good intentions, the Houthis must cooperate with the international community and the legitimate government of Yemen as well as its people and regional neighbors. They must also stop using the ship as political leverage,” he said.

“If the Houthis do not show this spirit of cooperation, it would have disastrous consequences not only for Yemen but for the whole region. »

Significantly, the Ambassadors to the UN of Djibouti, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen sent a letter in 2020 addressed to the President of the Security Council, drawing attention to the risks the floating cargo poses to the region and calling for immediate action to avoid two nightmarish scenarios.

The FSO Safer’s external piping system and the failure of the pipe that led to a spill, moored off the port of Ras Issa, Yemen. (AFP/file photo)

The first would be the ecological disaster resulting from the spillage of 181 million liters into the Red Sea rich in marine life. The second would be the devastation caused by dark clouds of poisonous gases released by an explosion. In addition to damage to the health of some 3 million people in Hodeidah, 4% of Yemen’s productive agricultural land would suffer the destruction of standing crops of beans, fruits and vegetables to the tune of more than $70 million.

The spill could cause the port of Hodeidah to close for several months, preventing the delivery of fuel and essential goods needed by the local population, driving up fuel prices by up to 800% and doubling the cost of goods. in an already miserable country.

A statement released by the UN and the Dutch government on May 11 makes it clear that the timing and funding of the oil spill prevention plan is critical.

Dr. Hamdan stresses that a settlement of the Safer issue is a long-standing priority of regional actors, notably Saudi Arabia, which calls for a resolution of the many problems that keep Yemen in an unnecessary conflict.

“The international community is responsible for all the chaos,” Al-Shehri told Arab News. “His passive attitude is interpreted by the Houthis as a green light to continue their activities, so only the international community can and must resolve this issue once and for all. The solution is in his hands. »

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