The Domino Effect of the Instability in Yemen

Speakers List

Fatima Abo Alasrar | Non-resident Scholar at Middle East Institute, Ed Caesar | Staff Writer at The New Yorker.


The Domino Effect of the Instability in Yemen. WCYS hosted the virtual webinar discussion On Tuesday, December 14, in correspondence with the release of our study: “FSO SAFER: A Floating Ticking Bomb.” The event highlighted 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.

Abo Alasrar’s Comparison and Concerns

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.”

Economic and Environmental Impacts of Bargaining Chips

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 in negotiations 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 on Houthis to cooperate and do the right thing.

Caesar’s Investigation and Humanitarian Concerns

Ed Caesar spent a long time in the region investigating FSO Safer and recently published an article titled “The Ship That Became A Bomb.” The report examined the ramifications for Yemen and the area 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 concern over the shutdown 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.

Safer Issue and Urgency for Resolution

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 the authorities overlooked reports regarding its danger. However, they took no action, 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.”

Houthi Motives and Future Plans

Caesar expressed that for Houthis, it might be about more than garnering revenue, which amounts to less than $100 million. When he spoke with a Houthi negotiator on this issue, Al Saraji, Caesar learned that this tactic is to maintain the current economic value of the arrangement. “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 they are looking to replace the Safer with a new FSO to maintain that arrangement, which is part of their vision.”

Holding a Gun to Their Head

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 that 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 not unfolding quickly.

Need for Immediate International Intervention

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.

Call for Diplomatic Solutions and Emergency Measures

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. The solution requires the parties to determine the ship’s status, evaluate immediate necessary measures and plan to transfer the oil to another navigable vessel safely safely safely. At the same time, backup plans are crucial to deal with the worst-case scenario should it occur, identifying the required technical support and work teams.

Responsibility of the International Maritime Organization

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 to respond quickly to any disaster that may occur due to the deterioration of the situation of Safer.

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