A United Nations operation to transfer over one million barrels of oil from a decaying tanker to another ship off the coast of Yemen has been successfully completed, officials announced on Friday. This operation has prevented a potential catastrophic spill that could have severely impacted marine life and communities across the Red Sea. However, although one crisis has been averted, another one arises as the recovery vessel may be stranded until negotiations regarding the ownership of the transferred oil are resolved.
Yemen, the world’s poorest Arab country, has been torn apart by a war that has lasted for eight years, resulting in different territories being controlled by two rival governments and various militias. Both of these governments have claimed ownership of the oil on the decaying tanker, known as the FSO Safer, in hopes of gaining much-needed revenue from its sale.
Ahmed Nagi, a senior Yemen analyst at the International Crisis Group, stated that the immediate priority was to prevent an oil spill from the deteriorating FSO Safer. However, now that the salvage operation has concluded, the focus returns to the challenging issue of the oil inside the tanker.
The FSO Safer held approximately four times the amount of oil that was leaked in the devastating Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. Moored north of the port city of Hudaydah on Yemen’s west coast, the 1,188-foot tanker had been largely abandoned during the war with only a skeleton crew and had not been adequately maintained for years. U.N. and Yemeni experts had repeatedly warned that it was an ecological time bomb that could explode or disintegrate at any moment. However, international efforts to safely remove the oil have been hindered for years due to the complex conflict in Yemen, which has caused one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, along with challenges like financing and insuring the operation.
Finally, in late June, crew members worked in scorching summer temperatures for over a month to transfer the oil to a newer, seaworthy tanker purchased by the United Nations. Achim Steiner, the administrator of the United Nations Development Program, expressed great relief over the completion of the operation.
With the oil transfer now complete, the workers will spend 14 to 20 days cleaning the tanks of residue. After that, the United Nations plans to tow the ship to be scrapped and recycled. Steiner mentioned that the newer vessel will be managed and maintained by the United Nations Development Program until the end of the year, and then it will be handed over to Yemen’s state oil company. However, both the Houthis and the internationally recognized government claim ownership of the company, which raises questions about who will receive the revenue from the oil sales.
Negotiations regarding the tanker and oil sales have been problematic since 2018. Nagi stated that any discussion on this issue always leads to a dead end, emphasizing the risk of leaving the tanker near a conflict zone, even if it is on a well-maintained ship. A new political understanding is necessary to address this issue.
Some Yemenis have expressed concerns that the newer ship could become another slower-moving time bomb, paralyzed by talks between hostile parties. Despite the significant hurdles that need to be overcome, Steiner emphasized that the primary objective should be to sell the oil and utilize the revenue for urgently needed development and humanitarian work in Yemen.
The recent lull in the war presents an opportunity to find a middle ground between the Houthis and the internationally recognized government, according to Nagi. However, it may require some pressure from regional actors to achieve a partial resolution to the conflict.
In conclusion, the successful transfer of the oil from the decaying tanker has averted a potential environmental disaster. However, the issue of ownership and revenue distribution remains unresolved, highlighting the need for a political solution in Yemen.