What's In Blue

Posted Wed 2 Jun 2021

Yemen: Briefing and Consultations on the FSO Safer Oil Tanker

Tomorrow (3 June) afternoon, the Security Council will convene in person for a briefing, followed by closed consultations, on Yemen. The meeting will focus on the FSO Safer—the oil tanker moored off the coast of Hodeidah governorate in the Red Sea that is at risk of causing a severe oil spill. Executive Director of the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) Inger Andersen and OCHA’s Director of the Operations and Advocacy Division, Reena Ghelani, are expected to brief. The UK, the penholder on Yemen, requested tomorrow’s meeting and indicated that it plans to circulate press elements to be issued following the session.

Tomorrow’s meeting will be the Security Council’s second stand-alone meeting on the FSO Safer, after having held a special session on the vessel in July 2020 to highlight the need to resolve the issue. Since 1988, the ship has served as a floating storage and offloading facility for oil transferred by pipeline from Marib governorate. It is located about 7.5 kilometres off the Ras Isa oil terminal, north of Hodeidah city in Houthi-controlled territory. Following the Saudi Arabia-led military intervention against the Houthi rebel group in March 2015, the FSO Safer ceased operations and maintenance of the ship has almost completely halted. Due to concerns about the condition of the 45-year-old vessel, the Yemeni government and the Houthis formally requested UN assistance in March 2018 to address the ship’s precarious situation. As negotiations with the Houthis on the deployment of a UN technical team to the ship have stalled, OCHA officials have been regularly informing the Council since April 2019 on these talks during their monthly update on Yemen’s humanitarian situation.

The Council’s previous special session on the FSO Safer was organised following the near-sinking of the ship when its engine room flooded in late May 2020. Divers from the corporation that owns the ship managed to make emergency repairs that contained the leak. Anderson participated in last year’s meeting, elaborating on the environmental threat posed by the ship. She warned that a leak in the FSO Safer, which holds an estimated 1.15 million barrels of oil, would potentially spill four times more oil than the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, which released 275,000 barrels. Andersen noted that a potential spill may affect up to 28 million people that rely on the Red Sea ecosystem for their livelihoods. This, in turn, could contribute to a deteriorating security situation in the region as resources become scarcer and more contested. She also noted that in the event of an explosion, which could be caused by an accumulation of gas in the cargo tanks, the vessel could pollute hundreds of square kilometres of agricultural land in Yemen.

Andersen and Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock, who also briefed at the July 2020 session, further underscored the potentially devastating humanitarian and economic consequences of the FSO Safer’s deteriorating condition. The port of Hodeidah, which receives the bulk of food and fuel imports for northern Yemen, where most Yemenis live, could be closed for up to six months in the event of a spill. International shipping through the Red Sea could also be affected. At tomorrow’s briefing, Andersen is likely to recall these possible environmental, humanitarian and economic consequences. She is also expected to discuss contingency planning in case of an oil spill, including work that the UN is conducting with the Regional Organization for the Conservation of the Environment of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden (PERSGA).

Ghelani is likely to provide an update on the discussions with the Houthis on the deployment of a UN technical team to inspect the vessel. The UN has long planned to send a team that would assess the ship’s condition, undertake initial repairs and make recommendations on how to avert an oil spill. Ahead of the July 2020 Council session, the Houthis informed the UN that they would grant the team access, but discussions to finalise approval then continued to stall. In November 2020, the UN announced that the Houthis had sent an official letter indicating approval of the team’s deployment, and said it hoped to deploy the team by February 2021. However, the UN released a new statement in February raising concerns that the Houthis were planning to review their earlier approval. The UN further said it could no longer predict when the mission might be able to deploy.

During tomorrow’s briefing, Ghelani may observe that a significant problem is the gap between the Houthis’ expectations of the UN technical team and what the UN is able to achieve in an initial mission. The UN is offering to assess the ship’s condition and carry out light repairs that are safe to conduct. However, the Houthis apparently want more extensive repairs, which the UN says it is unable to commit to without first inspecting the ship’s condition to know what is feasible.

Yesterday (1 June), the Houthis issued a statement saying that following recent meetings with the UN Office for Project Services, the current UN proposal excludes most of the maintenance work that the UN had committed to undertake in last November’s plan. It claimed that the UN was reducing the scope of its assessment and accused it of deliberately prolonging discussions to exhaust the budget allocated for the operation. Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, cousin of Houthi leader Abdulmalik al-Houthi, tweeted on 1 June about the UN’s “refusal” to implement its agreement regarding the Safer.

During Council meetings on Yemen, Council members have repeatedly called on the Houthis to cooperate with the UN to avert the looming crisis posed by the ship. Resolution 2564 of 25 February, which most recently renewed the Yemen sanctions, and a 16 April press statement on Yemen, stressed “Houthi responsibility” for the situation of the FSO Safer and underscored that the Houthis need to facilitate the UN’s “unconditional and safe access” to the tanker.

Tomorrow’s meeting is expected to take place in a format like that of last year’s, in which Council members will proceed to consultations without making statements at the open briefing. During tomorrow’s closed consultations, members may discuss possible next steps that the Council could take in light of the stalemate in addressing the ship’s situation.