An oil tanker loaded with about a million barrels of crude has been sitting by the Yemeni coast since 2015. The UN has repeatedly called on the Houthi rebels to allow access to the tanker to reduce the risk of explosion or a leak, but the Iran-affiliated group that controls much of Yemen has refused. Now, the UN is urging the Houthis to allow a checkup of the tanker again. The UN Security Council this month again called on the Houthis to allow experts to examine the vessel after internal documents cited by Al Jazeera showed that seawater had entered the engine compartment of the Safer. This could damage pipelines and increase the risk of the vessel sinking with its load, the report noted.
To make matters worse, maintenance of the tanker is no longer possible, according to experts, because the damage that the tanker has suffered is not reversible any longer.
The executive director of the UN's Environmental Program, Inger Andersen, warned ambassadors earlier this month that if anything happens to the tanker, this could cause a disaster for Yemeni communities in the vicinity. According to her, if the Safer leaks, it could prompt the closure of the Hodeidah port, a vital link between Yemen and the world, providing access to much-needed food and fuel supplies.
In addition to the closure of the port, which could last for two to three weeks, an oil leak from the stranded tanker could also lead to the closure of half of the Yemeni fishing grounds in the Red Sea, Andersen said, noting that such a disaster would cost some $350 million over five years.
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The Safer is a converted storage and offloading vessel, which was installed in its place back in 1988 by Hunt Oil Co., a Texas-based oil company. The vessel stored crude produced at Yemen's fields for years until the civil war broke out. Since 2015, when it was abandoned, it has not seen any form of maintenance. According to the general manager of the company that operated the tanker, its fire extinguishing system is no longer operational, and neither are the valves feeding its cooling system.
Back in 2019, the UN again called on the Houthis to allow access to the vessel for inspection. The Houthis demanded that the Safer's load be sold first, and access to its share of the revenue be made available. The vessel could also be used for tactical purposes.
The Atlantic Council said in a 2019 report that the "massive floating bomb in the Red Sea needs urgent attention" and that despite the several requests for UN assistance by Yemeni authorities, "the bomb remains afloat, untended and under the control of the Houthis."
"Given that the Houthis have already attempted to blow up several oil tankers in transit through the Bab al-Mandeb and Red Sea, it may well be the case that they view this precarious situation as a tactical and strategic advantage worth maintaining," the authors Ian Ralby, David Soud, and Rohini Ralby wrote three years ago.
"They do say that openly to the U.N., 'We like to have this as something to hold against the international community if attacked,"" a European diplomat told the AP in 2020.
Last year, in May, a pipe ruptured in the Safer, and seawater flooded the engine compartment. Repairmen were allowed to reach the vessel, but according to Time magazine, a job that would have normally taken a few hours stretched into several days because of the condition the Safer is in. And they were lucky because, according to former manager Ahmed Kulaib, who spoke to Time earlier this year, "Any spark, believe me, will end with a big explosion on that ship."
By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com
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