Catastrophe beckons over attacks on Red Sea


The ongoing security threats on the coast of Yemen have brought all work to secure a dilapidated oil tanker to a standstill.

The oil tanker, FSO Safer, has stood on this coast for 48 years and has started to weather badly in the last few years. The ship is described as a “ticking time bomb”, as it could not be seen in any way due to fighting in Yemen.

Fears arise that the ship’s hull is leaking, which could lead to an explosion and then dump barrels with thousands of liters of crude oil into the Red Sea.

In August last year, the United Nations (UN) announced that it had carried out a complex transfer of the oil to a new vessel – a decisive step to avert an environmental and economic disaster.

However, the UN said that the FSO Safer must be towed elsewhere and destroyed because it still poses a “residual environmental threat due to the oil that remains and as the ship’s hull may possibly break apart”.

However, after delays due to a funding shortfall of $22 million, the security situation in the Red Sea deteriorated dramatically – the ripple effect of the conflict between Israel and Hamas.

The Houthi rebels, who control the capital Sanaa and the waters where the FSO Safer located, controlled, began attacking ships in the Red Sea in November, leading to many ships being diverted around Africa.

Earlier this month, the US carried out several attacks on the Houthi rebels, and carried out two joint operations with Britain.

However, the situation presented “unforeseen operational and financial challenges” for the Safer project which made it difficult to continue, a spokesperson for the UN development program said.

“After much consideration, the UN had no choice but to suspend the project at this time and the authorities have been informed accordingly,” the spokesperson said.

“We continue to monitor the situation closely.”

Edrees al-Shami, executive general manager of SEPOC, the Yemeni oil and gas company, said there is a “big risk” that the ships could be hit by a stray rocket while the Houthi-controlled areas come under attack.

Peace talks in jeopardy

Finalizing the Safer project was always going to be complicated due to the fighting in Yemen. The Houthi rebels, who took control of Sanaa in 2014, have been fighting for years against a Saudi-led coalition that supports the internationally recognized government in the southern city of Aden.

Although a six-month ceasefire, which came into effect in April 2022, has largely been preserved, experts say that the recent unrest in the area threatens any efforts to secure a further ceasefire.

The Houthi rebels say its recent attacks in the Red Sea have targeted vessels with ties to Israel, as it supports the Palestinians in Gaza.

The rebels have also meanwhile announced that any American and British interests are “legitimate targets”.

Who owns the oil?

Yemen’s rival authorities in Sanaa and Aden are at odds over who owns the oil that is on the FSO Safer was, as well as the new tanker that now holds it, the MT-Yemen.

The Houthis previously said they wanted to sell the oil and use the proceeds to cover their employees’ salaries. They also called for the completion of onshore storage facilities that could potentially hold the crude oil.

Under the terms of the handover agreement announced last year, the MT-Yemen managed by a UN contracted company for at least six months.

However, Al-Shami told AFP the company “wants to leave the vessel behind because of the recent conflict in the region”.

The UN says the crew will leave the ship, but the MT-Yemen will continue to remain under the company’s management.

Al-Shami raised the possibility that SEPOC will have to take over the “management” of the vessel – a move that is likely to upset the government in Aden.

“If the UN cannot properly steer the vessel, it will MT-Yemen only FSO Safer be his successor,” he said.