UN Diplomatic Success in a Potential Oil Disaster

The derelict Safer, carrying over a million barrels of crude oil, was an environmental disaster waiting to happen off the coast of Yemen. The civil war in Yemen made a UN recovery effort impossible for two years until now. Work is underway and disaster has been averted. Now, the parties are fighting over who owns the oil.
Safer-FSO (1)

The Safer FSO off the coast of Yemen. Via

August 17, 2023 23:26 EDT

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 $140 million needed to address the potential disaster of the floating storage and offloading unit (FSO) Safer. 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 like a joke. The second concerns the sale of the oil and the disposal of the Safer.

The UN’s Resident Coordinator in Yemen coordinated the fundraising and the acquisition of the necessary agreements from the Huthis as well as the internationally recognized government (IRG), an undertaking that took years of effort and attention. Western nations contributed significant amounts, and the Netherlands in particular took a leading role in funding and mobilizing efforts.

Immediate neighbors who would have been most deeply affected by the disaster of a spill, such as Saudi Arabia, contributed only $10 million, less than might be expected considering both the risk to the Saudi coast and the financial capacity of that state—much of which comes from the production and export of hydrocarbons. 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.

The shortage of funding from states and major institutions led the UN to launch a crowdfunding operation that had limited support. The United Nations Development Programme thanked the contributors on August 11 when the first phase of the operation was completed.

A technically and politically delicate recovery operation

Earlier this year, the UN finally successfully purchased a very large crude carrier-class 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 specializes 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 that would worsen the risks, conducted technical inspections of the Safer’s hull and machinery and then organized easy access between the two vessels. They also brought the 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 anchored alongside the Safer. In a major public relations exercise organized 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 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 that 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 of the decaying Safer.

The operation to transfer the oil started promptly, and on August 11 the Secretary-General of the UN announced that the transfer of the 1.1 million barrels of crude oil had been completed.

This first phase has successfully and thankfully avoided a major environmental disaster; it is really good news for Yemenis and other residents 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 $140 million, whereas cleaning up an oil spill on that scale would have cost up to $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. The new FSO needs to be secured in position and the wreck removed to finalize the clearing of the remaining 22,000 barrels of sludge remaining on the Safer. On the legal front, the IRG has unsurprisingly 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 the coming months. On top of this, the next phase will require an additional $20 million or so of fundraising.

Although the UN-negotiated truce expired last October, full-scale fighting has not resumed, although clashes are frequent. 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 $80 million, while that of the ship’s scrap is $33 million. By comparison, since August last year, the IRG lost about $1.5 billion due to its inability to export oil following the Huthi attacks on two export sites on the Arabian Sea last November. The IRG thus lost its main source of national income, leaving it more dependent than ever on its international supporters, whether the Saudis and Emiratis or beyond via 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

[Arab Digest first published this piece.]

[Anton Schauble edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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