Webinar : FSO SAFER: A Floating Ticking Bomb

On Tuesday, December 14, The Washington Center for Yemeni Studies hosted a virtual webinar and discussion: “The Domino
Effect of the Instability in Yemen,” in correspondence with the release of our new study: “FSO SAFER: A Floating Ticking Bomb.” The event shined a light on the political instability in Yemen and the significance of its consequences on the region and the international scene using the Safer Tanker crisis as a case study.
The Guest speakers were “Fatima Abo Alasrar, a Non-resident Scholar at Middle East Institute,
Ed Caesar, a Staff Writer at The New Yorker.

Abo Alasrar compared the Safer Tanker predicament to the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989, considering the amount Safer holds four times the amount spilled in the incident. “If it spills, it will be an environmental catastrophe of epic proportions… the amount of damage this would bring could last decades in the region.” Abo Alasrar commented on attempts to remedy the problem with no concrete resolution, “the attempts have not been materializing as the Houthis are reconsidering and changing their agreements with the UN time after time.” She spoke of the latest unmet agreement to allow an inspection of the tanker, which poses the question, “what do the Houthis want out of this? they have clearly expressed their interest in the oil revenue….” Abo Alasrar concluded that the economic and environmental impacts of the FSO on the region made for a great bargaining chip for the Houthis to have more influence for negotiation and discussions. As for the international community, she noted the attempt to have contingency plans if the spill was to happen; however, she iterated, “As much as the threat is recognized, the ability to mobilize to minimize the effect of this threat is not very clear.” Abo Alasrar considers the Houthis ‘ interest in their public image vital in rallying international pressure to solve this crisis and emphasizes the importance of starting discussions to remedy the situation in tandem with public pressure Houthis to cooperate and do the right thing.

Ed Caesar spent a long time in the region and investigating FSO Safer and recently published an article titled “The Ship That Became A Bomb.” The article examined the ramifications for Yemen and the region if the ship sinks or explodes, with a lack of safety systems onboard, and why we have reached this point. “To me, the greatest urgent problem is the humanitarian one.” Caesar voiced the concern over the shut down of Hodeida’s port in the case of a spill, where 2/3 of Yemen’s food enters the country through the facilitation of humanitarian aid agencies and the shipping routes through Bab Al Mandab. Caesar stressed that the humanitarian crisis waiting to happen is not emphasized enough in analyzing the Safer issue and the urgency it needs to be solved. He compared the Safer scenario to what happened in Beirut’s port explosion, where reports have been made regarding its danger, yet no action was taken, and the result was catastrophic.
“There were several chances to create a different outcome, including building a storage facility for the oil in Safer. Still, that project was never completed primarily because of corruption and was only half completed when Houthis took control of Sanaa.” Caesar expressed that for Houthis, it might be about more than to garner revenue which does not amount to more than $100 million. When he spoke with a Houthi negotiator on this issue, Al Saraji, he was struck by the fact that this tactic is to maintain the economic value of the arrangement currently in place. “The Houthis are currently fighting for Maarib. They can see a future in which they would own those oil fields, and then they would have a way to offload that oil at Rassisa. So what they are looking for is to replace the Safer with a new FSO to maintain that arrangement, and that is part of their vision.” Caesar iterated Abo Alasrar’s sentiment that the Houthis are using Safer as a bargaining chip; however, those who will be affected by an oil spill mainly reside within Houthi-controlled territory, “As if they are holding a gun to their own head,” he said, “as soon as the oil starts to leak, as it may do in any moment… their bargaining power leaks as well.” It is worth mentioning an oil spill clean-up would cost over $20 billion, so any amount of money expended by the international community to fix this now before a spill happens would be a fraction of what it would cost to clean up. “This crisis unfolds at the speed of rust,” said Caesar, when referring to the issue of FSO Safer slipping down the list of priorities because everything else happening in Yemen feels more urgent than a crisis that is not unfolding quickly. Abo Alasrar and Caesar both call for immediate intervention from the international community as this issue should be a priority for the region to evade further suffering.

The speakers stressed that all concerned parties should take all necessary steps to reach a diplomatic solution that ensures an emergency technical assessment of the Safer tanker to determine the ship’s status, the immediate measures to be taken, and plans to transfer the oil to another navigable vessel safely. At the same time, plans should be prepared to deal with the worst-case scenario should it occur, identifying the required technical support and work teams. In addition to the above, the International Maritime Organization should assume its responsibility and ensure that the necessary plans are in place and the essential expertise and equipment are provided to respond quickly to any disaster that may occur due to the deterioration of the situation of Safer.





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