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At Last, Some Good News From Yemen

It’s been so long since there was any cause for optimism in Yemen that you might want to cross your fingers before you read on: The likelihood of an environmental catastrophe in the Red Sea, one of the country’s many calamities, is abating.

The United Nations Development Programme has purchased a ship to take 1.1 million barrels of crude oil that has been sitting in a decrepit supertanker, SFO Safer, off the port of Ras Isa in Yemen’s west coast. It has contracted SMIT Salvage BV, a Dutch firm specializing in marine salvage, to extract the oil and remove the Safer to safety.

The replacement vessel is currently in drydock in South Korea, being fitted for its new purpose as a floating oil storage vessel. It is expected to arrive in the Red Sea next month. Depending on the weather and the condition of the Safer, the siphoning operation could take several weeks. Thereafter, a new mooring system will need to be installed for the replacement vessel. “We must accept that this is a very challenging and complex operation,” said Achim Steiner, administrator of the UNDP.

The FSO Safer has for years been likened to a time bomb, liable to break apart or explode at any moment, devastating the marine ecology in a large section of the Red Sea. Fish stocks would take 25 years to recover. A spill would close the ports of Hudaydah and Saleef, through which humanitarian supplies are brought into the war-torn country. It would also close desalination plants that provide water to millions of Yemenis.

A spill would affect the seven other littoral countries — Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea and Djibouti — and international shipping on one of the world’s busiest trade routes.

The UN reckons a clean-up operation would cost $20 billion. The toll on the global economy could be magnitudes higher. Remember what happened the last time the Red Sea lanes were backed up when a single ship choked the Suez Canal.

Built in 1976, the Safer is 360 meters long — a fifth again as long as the Exxon Valdez. Sold to the Yemeni government in 1988, its name (pronounced “saffar”) comes from the desert location of the country’s first oil discovery. Since the civil war broke out in 2014, no survey has been done of its seaworthiness. But given its age and long neglect, experts reckon its hull may be beyond repair.

The Houthis, the Iran-backed rebel group that started the war, has used the danger posed by the Safer to blackmail the international community for aid and favorable terms in ceasefire negotiations with Saudi Arabia, which leads an Arab coalition backing the legitimate Yemeni government. A year ago, they finally agreed to allow the oil to be offloaded.

But by then, the war in Ukraine had complicated the UNDP’s rescue plan: The price of oil tankers spiked as soaring freight rates prompted many companies to buy rather than lease vessels. The UN says it has raised $95 million, most of which has gone into the acquisition of the replacement vessel. It needs another $34 million for the first phase of the operation, and has had to resort to online crowd-funding.

Things could still go wrong. If the recent diplomatic thaw between Iran and Saudi Arabia doesn’t yield the political and economic dividends the Houthis want, they may yet obstruct the UNDP operation. If the ship’s condition is worse than expected, the siphoning process could be even more complicated than anybody knows.

The UN’s crowdfunding efforts are continuing. Keep your fingers crossed!

More From  Bloomberg Opinion:

Yemen Truce Is Good News for the Wider World: Bobby Ghosh

OPEC+ Mulls When to Fire Its Last Oil Production Bullets: Javier Blas

Russia’s Sunken Warship Is a Warning to All Navies: James Stavridis

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering foreign affairs. Previously, he was editor in chief at Hindustan Times, managing editor at Quartz and international editor at Time.

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

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