MAKKAH: Saudi Arabia has warned the UN Security Council that an “oil spot” has been sighted in a shipping lane 50 km west of an abandoned, decaying oil tanker off the coast of Yemen. Experts fear it could spill 1.1 million barrels of crude into the Red Sea.
The tanker, called the Safer, has been moored near Ras Issa oil terminal for more than five years. The UN previously warned that it could leak four times as much oil as was spilled during the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster off the coast of Alaska. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the Security Council have repeatedly called on Houthi insurgents in Yemen to grant access the tanker for a technical assessment and emergency repairs.
In a letter to the 15-member Security Council on Wednesday, Saudi Ambassador to the UN Abdallah Al-Mouallimi said “a pipeline attached to the vessel is suspected to have been separated from the stabilizers holding it to the bottom and is now floating on the surface of the sea.”
He said the vessel “has reached a critical state of degradation, and the situation is a serious threat to all Red Sea countries, particularly Yemen and Saudi Arabia,” adding “this dangerous situation must not be left unaddressed.”
Ahmed Al-Ansari, an environmental expert in Jeddah, said: “There is no doubt that the Houthi militias’ intransigence in allowing … maintenance of the tanker … has increased the chances of deterioration.”
It might result in a major oil leak, he added, that could cause an unprecedented environmental disaster, the “negative economic, environmental and health effects (of which) will be great on the countries of the region and the world, due to the importance of the Red Sea in international maritime transport” as a major link between East and West.
Al-Ansari welcomed the efforts of Saudi authorities to press for action in the UN “to ensure that the Kingdom’s shores and regional waters are protected from all potential dangers.”
Independent researchers are also concerned about the condition of the Safer. In a 2019 report for the Atlantic Council titled “Why the massive floating bomb in the Red Sea needs urgent attention,” energy experts Ian Ralby, David Soud and Rohini Ralby said the potential consequences of a disaster include an end to the two-year cease-fire in Hodeidah and a worsening of Yemen’s humanitarian crisis.
“The risk of explosion increases by the day and if that were to happen, not only would it damage or sink any ships in the vicinity, but it would create an environmental crisis roughly four and a half times the size of the Exxon Valdez oil spill,” they said.
Other experts warn that the security situation in Yemen adds to the danger. “(Given) the complexity of this war, an errant bullet or shell from any one of the combatants could trigger a blast as large as Beirut’s Aug. 4 disaster, prompting a historic oil spill,” Dave Harden, managing director of Georgetown Strategy Group, wrote in an op-ed published by news website The Hill last month. “Cleanup efforts would be daunting — given the insecurity of being in a war zone and the additional health risks from COVID-19.”
Waleed Al-Qudaimi, deputy governor of Hodeidah, said an oil spill would create a humanitarian crisis as severe as the one caused by the Houthi insurgency.
“It (would) add an additional burden that will affect Yemen for decades, deprive thousands of people of their jobs and destroy marine biodiversity in Yemeni waters,” he said as he appealed for the international community to maintain pressure on the Houthis to allow maintenance work.