A “bomb” on the Red Sea, who cares?

Photo: Alexander Bobrov/Pexels (licensed under Pexels)

A “floating time bomb”. The latest threat emerging from Yemen bloody civil war may not be what we expected. It is not directly linked to the war but is rather an unfortunate collateral damage of the conflict that has opposed the Saudi-backed Hadi government and the Iran-supported Houthi rebels. Yet, it is not a Houthi drone launching facility and it is not an Al Qaeda cell; it is a vessel that could pose a massive threat to the region’s stability but also the entire Red Sea’s ecosystem.

On 3 December at the UN Climate Change Conference in Madrid, the internationally recognised Yemeni delegation headed by Vice-President Ali Mohsen Saleh pleaded once again for the United Nations to take decisive action in the matter of the “Safer” tanker. The tanker that has been operated by Yemen’s Safer Exploration and Offshore Production Company as a Floating Storage and Offloading unit (FSO) has been moored off Ras Issa Terminal since 1988. Yet, due to the ongoing conflict, the FSO has been left without the obligatory maintenance work since its closure in 2015.

But why worry about some tanker that nobody wants? That is exactly the issue: this is not just some boat and it does not leave any of the warring parties indifferent.

When it was abandoned, the “Safer” contained – and still contains to this day – approximately 1.14 million oil barrels. And in the absence of proper care, the “Safer” has been left exposed to corrosion and its generators have stopped the injection of inert gases. What do these gases do exactly? To be brief, they prevent the tank from becoming flammable!

To make matters worse, the tanker is located a mere 25 nautical miles north west of Hodeidah port, one of the most critically strategic locations in the ongoing peace negotiations supervised by the UN. This means that the whole area is subject to high military tensions, as it was highlighted on 25 November when Saudi airstrikes hit Houthi facilities in Ras Issa, right next to the potential giant bomb!

Red dot showing approximate location of the “Safer” tanker

The “Safer” has become a massive security hazard for many reasons. Firstly, an explosion of the tank only 40 nautical miles from Red Sea shipping lanes could dramatically affect international shipping. Also, an explosion or a spill would significantly affect the local fishing-based economy and cause a dramatic uproar among the local population, further destabilising the already chaotic situation in the region. And last but not least, the longer the “Safer” is left unattended, the higher the risk of an environmental catastrophe. And this is not a quite so distant possibility: on 16 December it was reported that the tanker has started to leak!

But why has no one taken action? Actually, the UN did send an assessment team to the tanker last July, only to be prevented from boarding the “Safer” by Houthi authorities. Why? Because everyone wants a piece of that oil and everyone claims to have a right to it. As a result, another potential environmental time bomb is likely to be used as political leverage in ongoing negotiations and the “Safer” is unlikely to move any time soon and it will probably continue to spill its oil into the Red Sea until it is too late.

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