By now, the saga of a damaged oil tanker a breath away from an international environmental disaster stuck by Yemen has become more of a a ghost story than a news item. FSO Safer is a floating oil storage unit & offloading vessel moored in the Red Sea to the north of Yemen’s strategically important port of Hodeidah. Built in Japan in 1976, it was taken into custody by the Iran-backed Houthis in 2015, in the early phases of the civil war.
They have been holding the ship hostage since then, along with large portions of Yemen’s territory after pushing the internationally recognized Hadi government out of the country. Over the next five years, the physical conditions of the vessel degraded to the point that it has come to pose a significant threat of a potential environmental catastrophe, including risk of a major hull breach or an explosion of oil vapors. It is currently holding 1.14 million barrels of oil worth approximately $80 million USD. This cargo became the center of controversy between Yemen’s government and the Houthis. The ship is officially owned by Yemen’s government, but Houthis retain physical control of the surrounding territories. Both seek to obtain or retain control over the cargo and the ship.
The Houthis at one point had promised to allow international inspectors to visit the vessel over safety concerns, but subsequently withdrew permission. An oil spill in the event of continuing negligence could displace as many as 1.6 million people and affect the local area for generations to ,come. Yemen Coalition of Independent Women’, hosted by Dr. Wesam Basindowah, brought together high level speakers to discuss the possible resolution of the ongoing debacle. UK’s Ambassador to Yemen Michael Aron emphasized that the resolution of this dilemma remains a priority for his government, and discussed the role UK has played in pushing for the international resolution, including the attempts to inspect the ship. However, the Houthis complicated these international efforts by vacillating on whether to grant the permission. Ambassador Aron recently pleaded with the Houthis to allow inspections; UN and Yemeni officials fear that the oil leakage could block maritime trade through the Red Sea, which accounts for up to 10% of world trade. The situation also threatens the daily passage of approximately 5.5 million barrels of oil.
According to the UK Ambassador, the ideal solution in this case would be to haul off the ship before it’s too late to a safe location, sell off the oil (the quality of which is deteriorating over time), and dismantle the vessel for scraps somewhere in India or Pakistan. The proceeds from the oil would go to an escrow account pending final resolution of the dispute.
Taking the ship out of the zone of danger is imperative no matter where the money from the sale ultimately end up. This would not be a quick process because the work that it would take to implement this solution could not be done in one visit. The first visit would dedicated to a review by international inspectors, who would then file relevant reports about the condition of the ship with additional recommendations. Over time, these recommendations would be reviewed, and the best course of action would be decided upon.
Yemen’s Ambassador to UNESCO Dr. Mohammed Jumeh gave the historical background of the vessel, then emphasized that by giving legitimacy to the Houthis, the international organizations enabled their ability to take advantage of this and many other situations. In a broader context, international humanitarian aid that flows through these channels is diverted by Houthis for recruitment of militias and to enrich their loyal clans. While the country has been devastated by the war and by the fragmentation of the society through various sectarian conflicts, separatist issues, spread of Muslim Brotherhood-driven Islamism, and other extremist movements, and proliferation of other terrorist organizations such as ISIS and Al Qaeda, the Houthis have taken advantage of international NGOs and UN programs by forcing the local organizations to accept the many Kafkaesque conditions imposed on being able to operate on the ground. Ambassador Jumeh explained that he was told of countless stories of humanitarians left in tears after testifying to the obstacles placed in their ways by the Houthis who had essentially blocked them from delivering the aid, and stole the resources and basic necessities, such as food, that should have gone to the starving YEmeni people.
Treating the Houthis as an equal partner to the legitimate government has repeatedly enabled them to get away with outright theft, corruption, various abuses, and grotesque war crimes while unjustly enriching themselves at the expense of the rest of the population. Ambassador Jumeh asserted that at this point after the Houthis have repeatedly shown their bath faith, security and defense issues had to be reassessed, prioritized and addressed. The Houthis have repeatedly ignored all internationally driven attempts to resolve the conflict and all arising crises. They showed they do not at all care about the political processes and flagrantly violated relevant agreement and resolutions, defying even basic conditions for resolving the situation.
They refused ceasefires in the midst of the pandemic that would have saved lives, looted essential medical supplies, attacked Saudi civilian cites with sophisticated Iranian made weapons, and have taken every opportunity to demostrate how little they care for the international agreements, laws, or basic civic norms. Yet despite all this, international organizations continued to pursue the same course of action, again and again trying to involve the Houthis as equal partners who are devoted to the agenda of resolving a dispute in an equitable way. That is not the case. The international organizations and institutions, continued Ambassador Jumeh, should be pushing for the return of the internationally recognized government to Yemen. No crisis can resolved with the offical government is forced into exile, and when there are no levers of pressure at all being exercised against groups engaged in blatantly illegal and destructive actions.
The Houthis have no incentive not to continue playing games over the ship and other matters. Denying entry to inspectors is just another way of blackmailing the international community and extorting additional financial bribes. There is no real justification, but the Houthis keep playing on the predictable international response and the fact that no matter what they do, no action will be taken against them; all the pressure will be directed at the YEmen government, because it responds to pressure and cares about the relationship with the international community. THat, however, can play no role in solving the situation with the ship because no matter how much the international community pushes the Hadi government, only the Houthis are in a position to allow in the inspectors. Without any pressure, however, they have no reason to do so.
The more panicked the UN and others are about the prospects of the ship exploding, the more they are likely to acquiesce to Houthi demand, so the Houthis have an incentive to procrastinate as much as possible short of letting the vessel and the cargo lose all value. Unless action is taken to change the status of the Houthis themselves, the situation is unlikely to improve. Hostage taking is what the Houthis are doing best. From holding hostage hospitals, civilians, and detainees, they have turned to holding hostage all of Yemen, and now the entire international community. It’s time to break through the cycle of manipulation and extortion and to put an end over a terrorist hold over the lives of millions of people.
There is another angle to the Safer situation that has escaped the attention of most analysts and media addressing the impending disaster. The Houthis are using the peril of the explosive oil tanker to reduce the likelihood of attacks or other incursions to the port of Hodeidah. Left unstated in their public demand is that the Houthis themselves may be willing to set the ship on fire if they see the possibility of the takeover of the port, which not so long ago was considered a vital point of attack for the Arab Coalition forces who were hoping to make a comeback and drive the Houthis completely out of the city. Had they succeeded in taking over the port after the siege that had resulted in the first major battle of the war or had the Emirati-led initiative to retake it in 2018 succeded, some believe, the course of the war would have been much more easy to reverse.
As a result of the corona pandemic, port activity throughout the country has been restricted. Hodeidah is one of the two working ports that are under the Houthi control. In addition to strategic importance, Hodeidah carries an important psychological and symbolic value both sides. When after bouts of intermittent fighting, UAE withdrew from Hodeidah in the summer of 2019, it was considered a major blow to the Arab Coalition, though the Emiratis remained formally involved.
Additionally, Yemen’s humanitarian crisis is considered the worst in the world, combining elements of combat, famine, various epidemics, and now the corona epidemic with various shortages, mine proliferation, and corruption. Hodeidah remains the principal entry point for container ships, bulk shipments of food, and fuel. It is also one of the ways Iran uses to smuggle various contraband to Houthi control. Not only is Hodeidah essential for the Houthis’ hostage taking of Yemen through control of much of the humanitarian aid entering the country, but losing access to the port would make receiving shipments of missile parts and other arms from Iran much more complicated. Entire ballistic missiles have been known to be delivered to Hodeidah by Houthis in trucks. Corruption fuels this situation as the Houthis are able to pay off some officials to allow illegal shipments to enter the city via speedboats and other avenues. Not resolving the ship situation, is in a way, an immunity measure for the Houthis.
The Houthis have used the port persistently to show their power over the international institutions, most recently by holding up a UN-ship and preventing it from leaving the port. THis happened after a violation of the Stockholm Agreement which had all parties to the conflict withdraw from the HOdeidah port in May 2019; the Yemen government only a month ago slammed the Houthis for the complete plunder of the port assets in spite of the agreements. But without the interest in that port, the Houthi games over the control of the ship made little sense, since coming to terms and getting a significant financial benefit from the agreement would have benefited Houthis politically as much as financially, portraying them as a rational authority willing to negotiate, even if from a position of strength.
While Hodeidah and two other ports have been greatly damaged as a result of the fighting, the international community has come to believe that these ports hold the key to a “sustainable peace” (despite the fact that it is obvious that an organized group of thugs trained and supplied by the terrorist organization Hezbullah and Iran, and used as a proxy to attack Saudi Arabia can not be part of any peace solution, because its objective is war, damage to its enemies, and power), and the UN has committed to “restoring them to a functional state”.
What that ultimately means is that the international organizations, if they ever want to be freed from the yoke of Houthi entrapment, should direct all of the international humanitarian aid solely through the Arab Coalition units, depriving the Houthis from the leverage to make additional demands. Until this point the possibility of simply taking over the ship and hauling it off has not been entertained, due to a risk of an attack by the Houthis – but any such move should be considered an act of war and met with force, as one would treat any pirate organization.
At the end of the day, the only way to shut down these extortionist maneuvers is to deprive the Houthis of the power that makes it possible. THey cannot be dealt with as a legitimate party to a conflict; they should be considered a terrorist organization and treated with the same consideration accorded to ISIS or Al Qaeda; and the international community should make every effort to assist the Arab Coalition in liberating the territories controlled by the Houthis for what amounts to illegitimate and illegal oppressive occupation by a foreign funded insurgency. Furthermore, it is time to start thinking about depriving the Houthis of strategic arms superiority, which despite the attacks that have disrupted their cyber capabilities and missiles have failed to stop them from continuous and seemingly infinite reception of drones, missiles, and much more.