How Iran’s Yemeni Proxy Uses a Looming Environmental Catastrophe as Leverage

October 14, 2021 | Ed Caesar
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In 1987, a Texas-based oil company converted the Safer, a massive tanker, into a “floating storage-and-off-loading facility” for storing Yemeni petroleum where it can easily be picked up by smaller tankers. But the Safer has long fallen into disrepair thanks to the country’s civil war, and the one-million barrels of oil onboard are in constant danger of exploding or leaking into the Red Sea. Ed Caesar reports:

Many people familiar with the Safer liken it to the dockside warehouse in Beirut, packed with ammonium nitrate, that exploded last year. That blast killed 218 people and destroyed a swath of the city: nearly 8,000 apartments were damaged. Beirut’s plight was predicted, too—six months before the explosion, officials inspecting the consignment of ammonium nitrate on the waterfront warned that it could “blow up all of Beirut.” [One official] described the Safer to me as a “bomb.”

A fire or an explosion on the Safer could pollute the air for up to eight million Yemenis, and would complicate the delivery of foreign aid to the western coast. A spill would be even more calamitous. Yemen’s Red Sea fishing industry has already been ravaged by the war. An oil slick would knock it out entirely. A big spill would also block the port of Hodeidah, which is some 30 miles southeast of the tanker. Two-thirds of Yemen’s food arrives through the port. . . . In the worst forecasts, a large volume of oil would reach the Bab el-Mandeb Strait—the pinch point between Djibouti, on the African mainland, and Yemen.

The UN, the Saudis, and other international players have tried to organize an effort to prevent a catastrophe, but the Houthis—the Iran-backed group that controls the ship and the Hodeidah port—have stood in their way. After all, Caesar writes, the fate of the Safer has given them “leverage in broader negotiations concerning the war.”

Some observers also believe that the Houthis have laid mines in the waters around the Safer. Many coastal regions under Houthi control have been booby-trapped this way. If explosives indeed surround the ship, nobody knows their exact locations.

If every party were committed to a resolution of the crisis, all the oil could be removed from the Safer within a month or so. . . . Yet the Houthis have frustrated the UN’s attempts to take any steps toward removing the oil, despite having begged the organization for help in 2018. . . . Indeed, some UN contractors worry that the Houthis may have actually weaponized the ship. In 2020, during preparations for an inspection that never occurred, a UN contractor advised that experts check the ship for “mines or explosives or improvised explosive devices.” Another UN source said that the vessel was an integral part of the Houthis’ defense of Hodeidah.

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