FSO Safer: A Ticking Bomb Off Yemen Coast

The FSO Safer is a floating oil storage and offloading vessel docked north of the Yemeni city of Al Hudaydah on the Red Sea.

The ship holds around 1.14 million barrels of oil. Since Yemen’s civil war began in 2015, its structure has been left exposed to dampness and rust with little or no upkeep.

The Houthi parties and the Yemeni government are at odds over ownership and responsibility. The ship’s inert air, which usually prevents explosions, has dissipated, placing it at risk of exploding and triggering an environmental disaster.

Safer was captured by Houthi forces in March 2015, during the early days of the Yemeni Civil War, after they took control of the shoreline surrounding her mooring. Her structural state deteriorated substantially over the years, putting her at risk of a catastrophic hull breach or an explosion of oil vapours that would normally be controlled by inert gas generated on board.

The ship is thought to be carrying 1.14 million barrels of oil worth up to $80 million, which has been a subject of dispute in negotiations between the Houthi rebels and the Yemeni government, both of whom claim ownership of the cargo and vessel.

Water entered the machine room after a cooling system leak, prompting the UN Security Council to convene a special meeting in July 2020 to discuss the situation.

The United Nations warned on July 15, 2020, that the FSO Safer might spill four times the amount of oil that the Exxon Valdez spilled.

“A pipeline attached to the vessel is suspected of having been freed from the stabilisers holding it to the bottom and is now floating on the surface of the water,” Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United Nations stated in a letter on September 24, 2020.

The UN and the Houthi leadership struck an agreement in late November to allow a UN-led team access to Safer for inspection and repair by January 2021. When the Houthis failed to deliver a letter promising the safety of the UN-led delegation, the trip was postponed indefinitely.

The FSO Safer was reported to be in imminent danger of sinking, fire, or explosion as of October 2021. A large spill would be terrible, blocking the ports of Hudaydah and As-Salif for weeks and interrupting food aid to the country’s half-population.

This could result in a shortage of fuel, which is required for pumping or supplying water, as well as the disruption of desalination plants in the area. A spill would also impact the fishing industry, which employs 1.7 million people, as well as world trade travelling through the Red Sea and Suez Canal.

On March 5, 2022, Mohammed al-Houthi and the United Nations agreed to pump the oil still in the decaying tanker into another ship to avoid a natural calamity.