A Red Sea disaster avoided

Summary: the threat of an enormous environmental disaster in the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen has been averted thanks to the UN and funding from Western governments.

We thank our regular contributor Helen Lackner for today’s article. A Yemen expert, Helen also works as a freelance rural development consultant with a particular interest in water among other environmental issues. Saqi Books has published the paperback edition with new material of her Yemen In Crisis, now subtitled Devastating Conflict, Fragile Hope. It is a seminal study of the war, what lies behind it and what can happen for it to end. In July 2022 Routledge published her latest book Yemen: Poverty and Conflict. Helen’s most recent Arab Digest podcast is available here.

There isn’t often good news coming from Yemen, so it must be appreciated when it does happen. After years of disagreements between the various political-military factions involved and hard work from a few committed international actors [states and individuals], the UN finally raised most of the US$140 million needed to address the potential disaster of the Safer FSO (Floating Storage and Offloading) [see our posting of 15 June 2022 for background and details]. The plan developed by the UN more than two years ago has two phases; the first emergency one is to avoid a massive environmental disaster in the Red Sea which would have made the Exxon Valdez spill seem a joke. The second concerns the sale of the oil and the disposal of the Safer.


Coordinated by the UN’s Resident Coordinator in Yemen, fund raising and getting the necessary agreements from the Huthis as well as the Internationally Recognised Government took years of effort and attention. Western nations contributed significant amounts and the Netherlands in particular took a leading role in funding and mobilising efforts. Immediate neighbours who would have been most deeply affected by the potential disaster of a spill, such as Saudi Arabia, contributed US$10 million, less than might be expected considering both the risk to the Saudi coast and the financial capacity of that state, much of it from the production and export of hydro carbons. The UAE doesn’t even figure in the list of funders. The major international oil companies were also less than generous though the few still involved in Yemen did contribute. The Yemeni private sector also contributed significantly as it needs the Red Sea ports for imports of basic commodities. However the shortage of funding from states and major institutions led the UN to launch a crowd funding operation which had limited support. All were thanked by the UNDP for their contributions on 11 August when the first phase of the operation was completed.

That first phase started with the long and arduous fundraising exercise. Earlier this year, the UN finally successfully purchased a very large crude carrier [VLCC] tanker to replace the Safer and had it modified to ensure it could be used as an FSO. The Dutch company carrying out the operation are specialists in this type of complex technical challenge. In late May its technical support vessel and staff  arrived on site with the equipment needed and prepared the Safer. The Dutch team first ensured that there were no toxic gases on and around the vessel which would worsen the risks and then conducted technical inspections of the Safer’s hull and machinery and organised easy access between the two ships. They also brought generators necessary to load inert gases to protect the tanks during the transfer of the oil. Two other smaller ships containing emergency response equipment such as dispersant sprays were anchored nearby.

In mid-July the replacement tanker arrived and was moored alongside the Safer. In a major public relations exercise organised by the Huthis, the UN Representative who had been the focal point for the operation, David Gressly, publicly signed the document handing over this new ship to the Sana’a based Chief Executive of the Safer Oil company Edris al Shami. Given the controversy over the ownership of the ship, the oil and most other aspects of the Yemeni crisis, the Huthis used this opportunity to invite international film crews and journalists to witness their takeover of the tanker which was formally renamed Yemen. This rare cooperation with international media was clearly designed to strengthen their claim over ownership of these assets following years of successful lobbying which ensured that they contributed nothing to the cost of the operation while strengthening their claim to ownership of any income from the sale of the oil and the decaying Safer.

The operation to transfer the oil started promptly and on 11 August, the Secretary General of the UN announced that the transfer of the 1.1 million barrels of crude had been completed. The new FSO needs to be secured in position and the wreck removed to finalise the cleaning of the remaining 22 000 barrels of sludge remaining on the Safer. So this first phase has successfully and thankfully avoided a major environmental disaster; it is really good news for Yemenis and other nationals along the Red Sea coasts, as well as for the fish, corals, water and all coastal and sea life in the region, let alone shipping, who would have suffered immensely for years, even decades, had the disaster happened. This preventive operation is costing USD$140 million whereas cleaning up an oil spill on that scale would have cost up to US$ 20 billion! Given the rarity of good news in UN interventions, the publicity surrounding this success is not surprising.

However, much remains to be done. Unsurprisingly, by the end of July the Internationally Recognized Government (IRG) asserted its own sole authority over the company’s assets warning international companies against dealing with any parties ‘impersonating’ it. Meetings are taking place between the Yemeni parties involved and the UN to address the next phase of the process. Competition between the Huthis and the IRG for control over the income from the disposal of the Safer and its oil is likely to intensify in coming months. An additional US$ 20 million or so are needed for the next phase.

Although the UN-negotiated truce expired last October, full-scale fighting has not resumed but clashes are frequent and hostilities have largely shifted to the economic front in the past year. The oil from the Safer is currently estimated to be worth something in the region of US$ 80 million while that of the ship for scrap is US$ 33 million. By comparison, since August last year, the IRG lost about US$1.5 bn due to its inability to export oil following the Huthi attacks on two export sites on the Arabian Sea last November thus losing its main source of national income and leaving it more dependent than ever on its international supporters, whether the Saudis and Emiratis or beyond through humanitarian and other international assistance. Despite this rare triumph of UN diplomacy and negotiations, underfunding of the UN’s Humanitarian Response Plan and the continued weakness of the economy mean that living conditions continue to deteriorate for Yemenis. But surely everyone aware of the risks of a catastrophe from the Safer must be relieved that this disaster, at least, has been avoided.

Leave a Comment

Scroll to Top

Access provided by the Bodleian Libraries of the University of Oxford