The Ship That Became a Bomb

The Ship That Became a Bomb

Soon, a vast, decrepit oil tanker in the Red Sea will likely sink, catch fire, or explode. The vessel, the F.S.O. Safer—pronounced “Saffer”—is named for a patch of desert near the city of Marib, in central Yemen, where the country’s first reserves of crude oil were discovered. In 1987, the Safer was redesigned as a floating storage-and-off-loading facility, or F.S.O., becoming the terminus of a pipeline that began at the Marib oil fields and proceeded westward, across mountains and five miles of seafloor. The ship has been moored there ever since, and recently it has degraded to the verge of collapse. More than a million barrels of oil are currently stored in its tanks. The Exxon Valdez spilled about a quarter of that volume when it ran aground in Alaska, in 1989.

The Safer’s problems are manifold and intertwined. It is forty-five years old—ancient for an oil tanker. Its age would not matter so much were it being maintained properly, but it is not. In 2014, members of one of Yemen’s powerful clans, the Houthis, launched a successful coup, presaging a brutal conflict that continues to this day. Before the war, the Yemeni state-run firm that owns the ship—the Safer Exploration & Production Operations Company, or sepoc—spent some twenty million dollars a year taking care of the vessel. Now the company can afford to make only the most rudimentary emergency repairs. More than fifty people worked on the Safer before the war; seven remain. This skeleton crew, which operates with scant provisions and no air-conditioning or ventilation below deck—interior temperatures on the ship frequently surpass a hundred and twenty degrees—is monitored by soldiers from the Houthi militia, which now occupies the territory where the Safer is situated. The Houthi leadership has obstructed efforts by foreign entities to inspect the ship or to siphon its oil. The risk of a disaster increases every day.

A vessel without power is known as a dead ship. The Safer died in 2017, when its steam boilers ran out of fuel. A boiler is a tanker’s heart, because it generates the power and the steam needed to run vital systems. Two diesel generators on deck now provide electricity for basic needs, such as laptop charging. But crucial processes driven by the boiler system have ceased—most notably, “inerting,” in which inert gases are pumped into the tanks where the crude is stored, to neutralize flammable hydrocarbons that rise off the oil. Before inerting became a commonplace safety measure, in the nineteen-seventies, tankers blew up surprisingly often, and with lethal consequences: in December, 1969, three of them exploded within seventeen days, killing four men. Since the boilers on the Safer stopped working, the ship has been a tinderbox, vulnerable to a static-electric spark, a discharged weapon, a tossed cigarette butt.

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 two hundred and eighteen people and destroyed a swath of the city: nearly eighty thousand 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.” Ahmed Kulaib, who was the head of sepoc until recently, described the Safer to me as a “bomb.”

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. According to sources in Ras Issa, the port closest to the ship, the Houthi officer responsible for laying mines in the area was killed.

Given these concerns, it is striking that many tanker-safety experts and former sepoc employees are more worried about the ship sinking than about it exploding. Its steel hull is corroding, as are its many pipes and valves. Last year, the skeleton crew had to make emergency repairs to a cracked pipe leaking seawater into the engine room; a sinking was narrowly averted. If the Safer goes under, one of two scenarios is likely: it would break free of its moorings and be dashed against coastal rocks, or its weakened hull would shear apart. In either event, the ship’s oil would spill into the water.

The Safer threatens not only the ecosystems of the Red Sea but also the lives of millions of people. A major spill would close a busy shipping lane. Not long ago, a British company, Riskaware, worked with two nonprofits, ACAPS and Satellite Applications Catapult, to generate projections for the U.K. government outlining possible outcomes of a disaster on the Safer, allowing for seasonal variations in Red Sea currents and wind patterns. 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. Every year, enough cargo passes through the strait to account for some ten per cent of the world’s trade. The insurer Allianz estimated that when the container ship Ever Given blocked the Suez Canal for nearly a week, this past March, the incident cost about a billion dollars a day. Ships rarely traverse oil-contaminated waters, especially when a cleanup is in progress, and their insurance can be imperilled if they do. A spill from the Safer could take months to clear, imposing a toll of tens of billions of dollars on the shipping business and the industries it services. acaps estimated that the cleanup alone could cost twenty billion dollars.

In any scenario, Yemenis would suffer the most. The country, which has a population of thirty million, is already experiencing the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Tens of thousands of Yemenis live in famine conditions, and another five million face dire food insecurity. Twenty million people require the support of non-governmental organizations to access basic provisions, and four million are internally displaced.

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 thirty miles southeast of the tanker. Two-thirds of Yemen’s food arrives through the port. In every projection presented to the U.K. government, Hodeidah remained closed for weeks; in the worst case, it did not reopen for six months. The United Nations, whose mission to Yemen is overstretched and underfunded, has no contingency plan to accommodate a shutdown of the Hodeidah port.

John Ratcliffe, an American who is a Yemen specialist in the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, is one of the central figures engaged in the U.N.’s attempt to solve the Safer crisis. He told me recently that the prolonged closure of the Hodeidah port might precipitate a famine unprecedented in scale in the twenty-first century. In 2018, unicef estimated that, if the port closed, three hundred thousand children would be at risk of dying from starvation or disease. Ratcliffe told me that this calculation is still valid in 2021. “We have no Plan B,” he said. “It would be a catastrophic situation.”

Yachts are compared by length, and container ships by cubic capacity, but oil tankers are compared by “deadweight”—the maximum tonnage that they carry when fully laden. By this yardstick, the Safer is one of the biggest ever built. Completed in May, 1976, in a shipyard in Japan, it measures more than four hundred thousand deadweight tons. It is eleven hundred feet long and two hundred feet wide, and can carry more than three million barrels of oil. The month the ship was completed, the United States was importing that much crude about every eighteen hours.

Illustration by Francesco Muzzi

The ship, then owned by Exxon, was initially named the Esso Japan. Classified as an ultra-large crude carrier, it resembled a giant barge more than a traditional seagoing ship. On the open ocean, slowing from full speed to a stop took about fifteen minutes, and required two miles of clear water. When the ship was fully laden, its “draft”—or depth below the waterline—extended more than seventy feet. It could be berthed only in the world’s deepest ports. The English Channel was very nearly impassable for the ship, and it could not steam through the Suez Canal.

In the years when the ship was being built, this unwieldiness was hardly considered a liability. From the beginning of the Six-Day War, in 1967, until 1975, the Suez Canal was closed to commercial shipping, and for most of this period oil was relatively cheap. Shipbuilders and oil companies began designing ever-bigger tankers, to make the transport of crude oil more economical. Ultra-large crude carriers were so enormous that Exxon offered bicycles to senior officers stationed on them, to make crossing the deck faster.

The huge increase in the size of tankers corresponded with a rash of fatal accidents and sinkings, most notably the wreck of the Torrey Canyon, which struck rocks off the coast of Cornwall in 1967, causing what was then the world’s largest-ever spill. At least eight hundred thousand barrels of oil are thought to have spilled into the English Channel. In 1974, in an influential two-part investigation for this magazine, Noël Mostert suggested that the fragility of supertankers rendered them “fatally flawed” as a species.

As Mostert wrote those words, the brief golden age of the supertanker was already ending. The oil crisis of 1973 had driven up crude prices, reducing demand and setting off a worldwide financial crisis. The Suez Canal reopened in 1975, making smaller tankers useful again. The moment the Esso Japan left the shipyard, it was a dinosaur.

Nonetheless, the supertanker was active for a while. Archived reports from Lloyd’s List, a London shipping bulletin, document it shuttling between deepwater ports in the Middle East and Europe, and occasionally voyaging to the Caribbean or the United States, even as the ship’s economic usefulness was waning. In 1982, it was sent to Ålesund, Norway, and was “laid up.” That year, about two hundred and fifty oil tankers were mothballed in this fashion: Norway’s fjords became tanker parking lots. Many of the vessels were eventually sold for scrap, but the Esso Japan found another purpose.

In 1983, the Hunt Oil Company, of Dallas, discovered crude in the Marib desert. The site of the strike was in the Yemen Arab Republic—sometimes known as North Yemen—about twenty miles from the border with the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, or South Yemen. Between 1984 and 1987, Hunt teamed up with Exxon to build a pipeline from the Marib oil fields to Ras Issa, on the coast of North Yemen, near Hodeidah.

For its Marib crude, Hunt needed storage space and an export facility on the coast. The company’s license to extract oil lasted only fifteen years, so building an onshore storage terminal at Ras Issa—which would take years and cost more than a hundred million dollars—didn’t seem like a good investment. Instead, for about a tenth of that price, Hunt bought the Esso Japan and retrofitted it as a floating storage-and-off-loading unit. Smaller tankers could berth alongside it to access its oil. Karim Abuhamad, a manager who worked on the conversion of the ship for Hunt, told me that the intent was to create a “floating gas station.”

The Esso Japan steamed from Norway to Korea for the twelve-million-dollar conversion, whereupon it was renamed the F.S.O. Safer. Among other modifications, the tanker was outfitted with a rotating-front mooring system, so that the ship could swing around its bow, like a weathervane, whenever winds kicked up, reducing strain on the hull. The tanker arrived in the Red Sea by March, 1988.

In the late eighties, the Safer was one of the best places to work in Yemen. Many of the crew members were Italian, including some excellent chefs. More and more Yemenis came aboard to work. One former employee recalled that during this period the ship was as well appointed as “a five-star hotel,” with pristine living quarters. Moreover, Yemen was relatively peaceful. The discovery of oil on the border between North and South Yemen had spurred coöperation, and in 1990 the states merged. During this period, Abuhamad lived in Hodeidah, travelled to the ship by helicopter, and windsurfed on the weekends.

By the late nineties, the Safer had begun to decay. In 2000, Hunt was granted a five-year extension at Ras Issa, but a more durable storage facility was clearly needed. The Yemeni government convened a committee to plan an onshore terminal. Abdulwahed Alobaly, an accountant who used to work for sepoc, the state-owned oil company, told me that the project’s budget was about a billion dollars—a wildly excessive sum. Not a brick was laid. Alobaly, who fled Yemen four years ago, told me that he suspected “huge corruption.”

Hunt was denied permission to keep extracting oil in Yemen, and in 2005 sepoc began administering the pipeline and the Safer, which at that point was thirty years old. The ship’s age was beginning to show, but it was maintained well enough to pass annual inspections by the American Bureau of Shipping. Seven years later, a consortium led by ChemieTech, a Dubai-based company, finally began building an onshore terminal, this time with a budget of less than two hundred million dollars. Hundreds of Yemeni and international contractors set up camp at Ras Issa and began constructing three enormous vats for storing crude oil. From the site, the workers could see the Safer floating on the horizon. Sameer Bawa, a director at ChemieTech, remembers discussing the poor state of the ship with crew members who came onshore. “That was what everyone was talking about—that it may sink at any time,” Bawa recalled.

The new oil terminal was half built when Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, was overtaken by the Houthis.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled North Yemen between 1978 and 1990, and the unified state of Yemen until 2011, was astonishingly corrupt. A U.N. panel has estimated that while he was in power he acquired as much as sixty billion dollars in personal wealth. He also appears to have played a double game with the West: he officially aligned himself with the war on terror while tacitly providing support for proscribed Islamist organizations, to keep foreign aid flowing in.

In 2011, the Arab Spring swept the region, and Saleh, facing uprisings, agreed to pass the Presidency to his deputy, Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. But Hadi’s government, assailed by rival factions, was weak, and in September, 2014, a militia led by Abdelmalik al-Houthi seized control of the capital.

Yemen is predominantly Sunni, and the Houthis are Zaydi Shiites—a minority of a minority. They long opposed the misrule of Saleh, whom they accused of robbing the country and colluding with imperialist enemies. (The Houthis’ slogan is “God is great, death to the U.S., death to Israel, curse the Jews, and victory for Islam.”) Nevertheless, the Houthis, whose power base lies in the mountains of northern Yemen, formed a coalition of convenience with Saleh to launch their coup. In the months after the Houthis captured Sana’a, they won ground across Yemen, taking Hodeidah and marching on the southern city of Aden. President Hadi eventually fled to Saudi Arabia.

In March, 2015, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia, which included the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, intervened to stop the Houthi advance. The U.S., Britain, and France provided intelligence, planes, naval support, and bombs. The Saudis saw in the Houthi advance the hand of their regional enemy Iran, a Shia nation. But, despite the aerial might of the Saudi coalition, the Houthis weathered the attacks, and entrenched themselves in northern Yemen. When Saudi Arabia entered the conflict, it predicted that fighting would last six weeks; instead, it has endured for more than six years. During the war, other regional actors, such as the U.A.E., have flexed their military muscle. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has maintained a foothold in the south of the country. A secessionist group called the Southern Transitional Council holds Aden. It is extremely unlikely that the Yemen of 2014 will ever be put back together.

The consequences for civilians have been devastating. Both the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition are alleged to have committed many war crimes. The Saudi air campaign has been recklessly conducted, and has killed thousands of civilians, including children. The Houthi regime has used child soldiers, deployed banned antipersonnel mines, and fired indiscriminately into civilian areas. Meanwhile, a sea-and-land blockade of Houthi-controlled areas by the coalition has contributed to life-threatening shortages of food, medicine, and fuel.

Recently, the outlook for Yemen has deteriorated further. Although fierce fighting continues—particularly in Marib, one of Yemen’s largest oil fields—foreign-aid donations have proved unreliable, partly because the pandemic has strained resources. In March, Britain halved its contributions to Yemen. Andrew Mitchell, a former minister for international development, said that the reduction in spending would “condemn hundreds of thousands of children to starvation.”

The crew of the Safer has watched the unfolding catastrophe in Yemen with mounting despair. ChemieTech’s onshore facility has been abandoned, and soldiers plundered much of the machinery and materials at the terminal. The Houthi capture of Sana’a also grievously wounded sepoc. According to Alobaly, the accountant, the Houthis appropriated the company’s entire operating budget—about a hundred and ten million dollars. The annual sum spent on the Safer dropped from twenty million dollars to zero.

By the end of 2015, all but one of the expatriate workers on the ship had evacuated. Tugboats, helicopters, and other vessels that serviced the Safer were withdrawn, and a team of divers who specialized in underwater repairs returned to their base city of Dubai. sepoc hired a local fishing boat to transport a Yemeni crew to and from the ship. Once the war started, the American Bureau of Shipping could no longer access the vessel for inspections. According to Lloyd’s List, the ship has been uninsured since September, 2016.

“Ha ha ha. I also love that TV show.”
Cartoon by Kendra Allenby

The fuel oil for the boilers soon began to run low. sepoc had normally spent five million to eight million dollars on boiler fuel every year. The company no longer had the budget for this, and in any case the type of fuel used to run the boilers was in short supply amid the war. The crew began to use the boilers only intermittently, to maintain the inert-gas and fire-response systems.

By 2017, the boiler system’s fuel supply had been exhausted. The crew considered using crude from the Safer’s own tanks but decided that the risk of an explosion was too high, because the crude might emit dangerous gas. They also understood that once the boilers stopped they would probably not function safely again without significant repairs. The normal process for “laying up” boilers of such a size requires preservatives, known as oxygen scavengers, to be placed in the tank, in order to prevent corrosion. The sepoc employees on the Safer had no scavengers.

sepoc, which was in debt to ChemieTech for the abandoned onshore-terminal project, grew financially desperate, and attempted to sell the Safer for sixty million dollars. But nobody was interested in a forty-year-old, uninsurable rust bucket anchored in the world’s hottest conflict zone.

By 2018, with the vessel now a dead ship and the area around Hodeidah overwhelmed by vicious fighting, virtually nobody was left on board the Safer except for a chief engineer, an electrician, two mechanics, a cook, and a cleaner. The team was swapped out with another one every month or so—if travel to Ras Issa was feasible. The million barrels of oil were stored in the ship’s central tanks, along its spine, and sepoc managers had filled the ship’s outside tanks with seawater, to mitigate the threat of a bullet piercing the hull and causing an explosion. If there were a fire on the ship, it would be impossible to control, because the Safer’s water pumps had been powered by the boiler system. In any case, there was now insufficient manpower to operate the ship’s fire stations.

In early 2018, the official government of Yemen and the Houthi leadership wrote separately to the U.N. Secretary-General, asking for assistance with solving the Safer crisis. The problem fell outside the U.N.’s normal remit. Resolving the issue required arcane technical knowledge, and the Safer was part of Yemen’s private sector. The U.N. does not like to become too entangled with commercial entities.

Nevertheless, the U.N. passed along the task to John Ratcliffe, the Yemen specialist who works in the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. He told me that his division is “very good at setting up in-country humanitarian operations, mobilizing funding, and all of these kinds of things,” adding, “We’re not experts on oil tankers.” Nevertheless, Ratcliffe’s office began working with the U.N. Office for Project Services, which could procure necessary hardware and expertise, and with the U.N.’s special envoy to Yemen, a Brit named Martin Griffiths.

In December, 2018, the warring parties in Yemen met in Stockholm to sign a partial deal, which Griffiths had brokered. A key breakthrough of the Stockholm Agreement, as the accord was called, concerned the Hodeidah port. In the months before the summit, there had been a brutal fight for control of the city. Given the dire ramifications for the whole country if the port was closed, both sides agreed to a ceasefire in Hodeidah, and at the nearby ports of Salif and Ras Issa. The warring parties have since discarded many provisions of the Stockholm Agreement, but the port of Hodeidah has stayed open, averting a nationwide famine.

The relative peace near Hodeidah seemed to present the U.N. with an opportunity to solve the Safer crisis. The U.N. and the Houthis began negotiating the matter through two channels. On a political level, the special envoy led talks. On a technical level, senior officers from the Office for Project Services, informed by consultants from A.O.S. Offshore—a private company with experience in the field of oil-tanker safety—attempted to organize an inspection of the Safer. By the summer of 2019, the U.N. and the Houthis had come to an accord that guaranteed the U.N. team’s safety and made the Houthis responsible for its safe passage to the ship. The U.N. assembled a team in Djibouti, which would cross the Red Sea in a service vessel and assess the Safer. But, the night before the inspection voyage was to start, a senior official in the Office for Project Services received a text message from a Houthi leader that said the mission had been cancelled.

The Houthis later explained that they were upset about a separate issue. To prevent foreign weapons and other contraband from flooding into Yemen, the U.N. had instituted a protocol requiring ships bound for Houthi-controlled ports to have their cargo inspected in Djibouti or in international waters. For complicated reasons, the Houthis wanted these inspections to take place at the Hodeidah port. The U.N. was adamant that discussions about an ecological and humanitarian danger should not be appended to other wartime negotiations. But the Houthis were looking from the other end of the telescope: the Safer crisis gave them leverage in broader negotiations concerning the war.

The sudden cancellation of the Safer inspection shocked Ratcliffe. “I always understood that there was a lot of risk here in terms of environmental and humanitarian impact,” he told me. “But I did honestly believe that we would be able to get to some kind of solution fairly quickly.” When the Houthis withdrew their support for an inspection, he went on, “it became very clear to me that this was going to be a politically much trickier issue than what I had been expecting—it was the first red flag.”

A second red flag was raised on May 27, 2020, when an alarm sounded on the Safer, indicating a leak in the engine room. The chief engineer, Yasser al-Qubati, rushed to the bottom of the ship to see what was going on. He was horrified to discover that a corroded pipe had burst and was spewing seawater into the engine room as if from an opened fire hydrant.

Usually, an oil tanker like the Safer uses seawater as a coolant. Water is drawn inside through a “sea chest”—an exterior valve that sits below the waterline—pumped throughout the vessel, and then discharged. Qubati determined that the leak needed to be fixed without delay: if the engine room filled with seawater, the Safer would sink.

The crew worked for five days, with little sleep, to stem the flow. The heat, humidity, and lack of ventilation created a vile smell deep inside the ship. The men attempted to clear the engine room of water using a pump powered by a diesel generator, but the generator failed. Fortunately, an electrician who happened to be visiting the ship repaired it within several hours. A rudimentary clamp was affixed to the broken pipe while a welder fashioned a patch for the hole. A team of divers with no experience on oil tankers was summoned from Hodeidah to fasten a steel plate over the sea chest, to stop the ingress of water. The divers succeeded—an impressive feat—but the plate was only a partial fix. Even today, some water continues to enter from the sea chest, and must be pumped out using power from the on-deck generators.

After this near-disaster, the Houthis took a more active role on the ship. A small unit of soldiers was detailed to board the vessel. They carried weapons, which made the sepoc crew members nervous, given their fears about the leaks of flammable gases. The soldiers also installed surveillance cameras all over the ship.

Following the sea-chest incident, nobody could doubt the fragility of the vessel. The U.N. contacted a Norwegian spill-response firm called NorLense, and bought a self-inflating boom approximately a kilometre in length. It could be placed on the surface of the sea and then fitted around the Safer like a giant diaper, in case the ship started to leak oil. Because of the breakdown in negotiations with the Houthis, the boom has not yet been deployed, but it has been transported to the region and is ready for use.

I was told that Qubati, the chief engineer, could not speak to me, because he feared for his life. Many sepoc employees have felt threatened by the Houthis, and their communications are monitored, on and off the ship. But, through another route, I managed to read a report that Qubati wrote for his superiors at sepoc soon after the leak. He describes a ship that “moves forwards each day towards the worst” and a crew that works under unbearable stress, making one desperate choice after another to prevent the vessel from sinking. He concludes, “Science, mind, logic, experience . . . all confirm that the disaster is imminent, but when [it] will exactly happen, Allah alone knows.”

The Red Sea is a natural marvel that is sometimes known as the Baby Ocean. The robust and relatively young coral systems in its waters extend twelve hundred miles, from the Gulf of Aqaba, by the Sinai Peninsula, to the Dahlak Archipelago, off the coast of Eritrea. The coral reefs support a unique and bountiful ecology. Fifteen per cent of the Red Sea’s marine life is endemic: many species, including fabulously arrayed parrot fish, wrasses, and dottybacks, live nowhere other than in its bath-warm waters. Along the coast of the sea, and on its many sparsely populated islands, mangrove systems abound. (Mangroves are nurseries for young fish and other delicate species, and provide nesting sites for migratory birds.)

In July, I visited the Farasan Islands, which lie about twenty-five miles west of Jazan, the southernmost Saudi Arabian city, which is fifty miles from the Yemeni border. In normal times, the Farasan Islands are a tourist destination, especially for divers. But unsurprisingly, given the pandemic and the region’s proximity to a conflict zone, there seemed to be no tourists on the ferry I took. The Houthi militia frequently sends drones with explosives into southern Saudi Arabia. One had recently hit a commercial aircraft, and others had detonated near civilian areas. At least one had hit a boat bound for Farasan. On the day before I landed in Jazan, the Saudi Arabian military had intercepted two drones heading for the region.

The Farasan Islands are gorgeous, though the weather can be oppressively hot: it was a hundred and eighteen degrees when I got off the ferry. A small town on the main island contains an Ottoman fort and the resplendent ruins of a pearl trader’s mansion from the nineteen-twenties. White-sand beaches rivalling those in the Maldives occupy seemingly every stretch of coastline. The ocean is lukewarm and turquoise. Every April, there is a festival celebrating the arrival of parrot fish into a shallow bay called Al-Hasis. Hundreds of revellers from the mainland join the local fishermen and wade waist-deep into the water with small nets to make a catch.

I stood in the bay with my pants rolled up and imagined oil blackening the water. We were about a hundred miles from the Safer. The models presented to the U.K. government suggest that the Farasan Islands could be hit within a few days if a spill occurred between October and March, when the Red Sea’s current is northward. But, regardless of the current’s immediate direction, any major spill would pose a severe threat to marine species in the region. I wondered if the parrot fish would keep returning if the Safer went under. The catches of fishermen in the Farasans would be affected; the livelihoods of fishermen closer to the site in Yemen would be destroyed.

“Only three hundred and sixty-seven followers? Maria’s not an asset to the abbey.”
Cartoon by David Borchart

The Saudi Arabian government is now working vigorously to mitigate the threat of a major oil spill in the Red Sea. Officials are concerned about the Safer’s potential long-term effects on marine ecology and on international tourism, which the country hopes to promote in the next decade. More urgently, Saudi officials are anxious about the effect of a spill on key infrastructure along the coast, including desalination plants that turn seawater into drinking water. About half of Saudi Arabia’s drinking water is produced by desalination.

In Riyadh, I met with the Saudi Arabian deputy minister for the environment, Osama Faqeeha, and two senior officials, all of whom were engaged in worst-case-scenario planning related to the Safer. They would not divulge their precise plans, but said that they were already procuring planes, skimmers, and dispersants to mitigate a spill. Part of their strategy was to place booms in the sea to stop the oil from reaching the desalination plants.

The men were old enough to be haunted by the memory of Saddam Hussein, in 1991, releasing some eleven million barrels of oil into the Persian Gulf, to stop a marine assault by the United States. The oil spill was the largest in history, and in some places the slick was five inches thick. It polluted five hundred miles of the Saudi coast, killing tens of thousands of seabirds, poisoning the water column, and creating lasting damage for the region. A subsequent U.S. study found that, twelve years after the spill, more than eight million cubic metres of oily sediment remained on the Saudi shoreline. One of the two senior Saudi officials, Mohammed Qurban, who heads a government group called the National Center for Wildlife, told me that his organization continues to chronicle the toxic effects of the 1991 spill.

Faqeeha sounded fatalistic when he talked about the Safer. He said that it would be much better to address the problem before a spill occurred, but added that he was basically powerless to do so. “We hope for the best, and prepare for the worst,” he said.

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. Another tanker could berth next to the ship and—while pumping inert gas into the Safer’s oil tanks—suck out its Marib crude. After that, a decision on the fate of the Safer could be made without fears of a spill, a fire, or an explosion. There are many scrap yards where the ship could be disassembled, so that its parts could be sold. Yet the Houthis have frustrated the U.N.’s attempts to take any steps toward removing the oil, despite having begged the organization for help in 2018. What do the Houthis want, then?

In July, I spoke to Ebrahim Alseraji, who had led the Houthis’ technical negotiations with the U.N., until the talks were cancelled in the spring. He said that the Houthis were anxious to resolve the standoff, but not at any cost. They wished to “maintain the economic value” currently in place in the Hodeidah region. In other words, they wanted to keep using the Safer as an offshore terminal—or at least to have another ship moored in the same position, with the same volume of oil on board. The estimated worth of the Safer’s current payload of oil is about sixty million dollars. While we spoke, the Houthis were fighting the coalition for control of the oil fields in Marib. Alseraji could imagine a future in which a de-facto Houthi state in northern Yemen could generate significant revenue by exporting oil from Ras Issa. Nevertheless, he said, the Houthis were “open to all solutions” from any party—except Israel.

I asked Alseraji why it had not been possible to arrange an inspection of the Safer. U.N. sources told me that the Houthis had made unreasonable demands, such as asking for their own divers to accompany those hired by the U.N., and that they had wanted more and more maintenance to be performed on a ship that appears to be unsalvageable. Alseraji claimed that the U.N. had reneged on several promises, and had “not been transparent.”

Around the time that the most recent set of talks was cancelled, one of the clan’s leaders, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, tweeted, in Arabic, “If, God forbid, an environmental catastrophe occurred with the explosion of the Safer, the world will stop not for a week, as it did in Suez, but will stop for a long time. And it will stop the navigation of Navy vessels and others. We hold the U.N. accountable.”

Ratcliffe, of the U.N., admitted to me, “It’s very discouraging to read those kinds of comments.” He explained that the U.N. would keep trying to find a solution, but that he wasn’t sure how to end the impasse with the Houthis over their demand that any inspection be accompanied by extensive repairs. “They would like to see something that’s closer to essentially a renovation of the vessel,” Ratcliffe said. “You can understand why that’s their perspective. But what we have been trying to say to them over these many months is that we don’t even know what the conditions are like on board. And it’s a very dangerous site. . . . We don’t feel like we can offer that kind of solution reliably without knowing what we’re dealing with.”

Ratcliffe framed the tension between the Houthis and the U.N. negotiators primarily in terms of safety. But, through other sources close to the negotiations, I learned that the U.N. does not have enough money to refurbish the ship. The U.N.’s response to the Safer crisis has been funded by a consortium of donor nations: the Netherlands, the U.K., France, Germany, Norway, and Sweden. An assessment mission would likely cost about ten million dollars. A thorough renovation of the ship would cost upward of fifty million dollars. Finding a supertanker to replace the Safer, and converting it into a floating storage-and-off-loading unit, could cost even more. The consortium of donors has so far been unwilling to commit to these higher sums. Their reluctance is understandable: it’s impossible to know if the Houthis would accept this solution, even if the donor nations found the money.

This summer, in Riyadh, I met with Mohammed al-Jaber, the Saudi Ambassador to Yemen. Jaber is fifty-one, with a gap-toothed smile and a direct manner. He has spent considerable time in Yemen, first as the Saudi defense attaché. He insisted repeatedly that Houthi leaders took their cues from Iran, and that their obstruction in the Safer crisis was nothing more than a callous power play. He said of the port, “Hodeidah is being treated as a hostage.” (When I mentioned Saudi Arabia’s many lethal incursions into Yemen, he looked resigned and said, “We don’t want to fight.”)

Many people involved with the U.N.’s attempt to solve the Safer crisis took similar, if more nuanced, positions against the Houthi leadership. None, apart from Ratcliffe, were permitted to speak on the record. One view was that the more the international community fixated on protecting the Safer the more strategically valuable the ship became to the Houthis. Yemen was a failed state. At some point, the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition would need to reach a peace agreement. Until then, the Safer was an ace up the Houthis’ sleeve.

The Houthi leadership seemed perversely indifferent about an ecological disaster, even though civilians in Houthi-held territory would be by far the most harmed by a major spill. It was as if the Houthis were holding guns to their own heads. Ratcliffe put it more diplomatically: “They do seem to take it seriously. But I get the impression that, at times, they may have a different understanding of how likely a disaster is, or how imminent it is.”

When I relayed Ratcliffe’s words to Alseraji, he responded that he was well aware the situation was urgent. This was at odds with other public proclamations by the Houthis. Last year, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, the clan leader, tweeted disparagingly about the rising international concern for the Safer’s plight: “The life of the shrimps is more precious than the life of Yemeni citizens to the U.S. and its allies. . . . Why is Safer more dangerous than the siege and the assault of the Americans, British, Saudis, Emiratis and their allies on the people?”

Alseraji told me that the Houthis would not allow any oil to be removed until there was “peace.” But if the Houthis are hoping to maintain the colossal threat posed by the Safer—a spill—until it suits them to defuse the risk, the tactic is unsustainable: their leverage would vanish the instant the ship began to leak.

The United States, which has made a more concerted effort to help end the fighting in Yemen since President Joe Biden took office, has been notably quiet on the Safer issue. Recently, however, Cathy Westley, the chargé d’affaires for the U.S. Embassy to Yemen, told me that she placed the onus squarely on the Houthis to stop obstructing the U.N., and she accused them of “politicizing the tanker.” I also learned that American representatives were attempting, through Omani interlocutors and other partners, to convince the Houthis of the perils of inaction.

“The Houthis must stop negotiating in bad faith,” Westley said. If a spill, a fire, or an explosion happened, she said, “the Houthis will be the only ones to blame and will risk the wrath of both the Yemeni people and the international community.”

Whether the Houthi leadership in Sana’a will respond to such admonitions is another matter. Indeed, some U.N. contractors worry that the Houthis may have actually weaponized the ship. In 2020, during preparations for an inspection that never occurred, a U.N. contractor advised that experts check the ship for “mines or explosives or improvised explosive devices.” Another U.N. source said that the vessel was an integral part of the Houthis’ defense of Hodeidah. Nobody who has been on the Safer recently has reported seeing any I.E.D.s. But the ship is now defended by soldiers. It would take less than a day to transfer explosives to the Safer by boat.

Alseraji, the Houthi negotiator, appeared to confirm to me that the ship was being used as a weapon: “Whether it’s a new vessel or an old vessel or a decaying vessel, we can still use it as a military defense in battles for Hodeidah. It will not change anything if the U.N. follows through with the agreement or does not. It will not change the status of the F.S.O. Safer to us, from a military standpoint.”

As the U.N.’s negotiations have foundered, other parties have made their own suggestions about how to fix the crisis. In March, Ian Ralby, who runs I.R. Consilium, a U.S.-based advisory group focussing on maritime issues, co-authored an article arguing that the only viable solution was for the U.N. Security Council to authorize the use of force to secure the Safer. He proposed that a naval minesweeping team comb the area for explosives, and that a naval guard protect the Safer as its oil is extracted and then loaded onto another tanker. Ralby’s point was that time was running short, and that it was too dangerous to keep negotiating with the Houthis on this issue.

Ralby’s article noted that, during the month that it would take to remove the oil from the Safer, there “would be more than enough time for the Houthis to exhibit a change of position from permission to hostility.” He went on, “Furthermore, the lack of unified command within the Houthi elements means that local Houthi forces may take a different approach than their ostensible ‘leadership’ in Sana’a. The risk of an impulsive attack is too great, therefore, to attempt a ship-to-ship transfer of the oil without external security, which would need to be provided by a foreign military. The only way for that to happen at this point is via a U.N. Security Council Resolution.”

Ralby’s proposal has not won universal support. To many, the idea of using an armed naval convoy to enter Houthi waters near Hodeidah is unwise. Peter Salisbury, a senior analyst for Yemen at the International Crisis Group, a non-governmental organization dedicated to conflict prevention and resolution, told me, “We are talking about a rusting, heavily guarded ship probably surrounded by sea mines that is highly prone to leaks and some kind of explosion.” He continued, “The consensus seems to be that you want to get the oil off without moving the ship, to minimize the risks of a leak. I struggle to see a military scenario that doesn’t significantly increase the chances of what we all want to avoid—a leak, or an explosion, or the F.S.O. Safer just sinking outright.”

Iran has also offered to facilitate a nonmilitary version of a ship-to-ship transfer. In July, the Iranian foreign ministry sent a memo to the U.N. proposing to send a floating storage vessel to the Red Sea to off-load the Safer’s oil. The Iranian document noted, in English, “The new initiative will circumvent the current disagreement of Yemeni parties on what to do with the oil, as the settlement of this issue by the Yemeni parties will be left to a later stage when the current risks are controlled.”

It was puzzling that the Iranians had not made such an offer earlier, and in any case it seemed unlikely that the Saudis, or other members of the coalition, would welcome such a solution, given the role Iran is playing in the Yemen conflict. Alseraji, the Houthi negotiator, told me that he welcomed new ideas but that Iran’s offer had been made to diplomats, not to the Houthi committee itself. It was, he said, idle talk.

Another group looking to solve the Safer crisis has quietly suggested what has become known as the Commercial Option. The combined worth of the ship’s oil and its scrap metal is approximately a hundred million dollars; the idea is to sell enough of these assets to pay for the transfer of fuel to another ship, and for the Safer’s removal from the Red Sea. No agreement has been reached about the profits that might be generated by this process, but the Houthis expect that any remaining funds would be relayed to their government in Sana’a.

The proposal has been championed by a successful Yemeni grain-trading firm, the Fahem Group, whose financial interest is self-evident: a spill would knock out grain imports for months, ruining its business. Fahem has partnered with the Yemen Safe Passage Group, a collection of former diplomats, humanitarian experts, and analysts, mostly based in the U.K., who are interested in Yemen. Dutch and British diplomats are also involved in the discussions. Fahem has engaged Smit, a Dutch marine-salvage firm, to undertake the oil-transfer work, if it becomes feasible.

Nobody from Fahem or Yemen Safe Passage wanted to be quoted in this article, but representatives for the Commercial Option met with Houthi negotiators in Sana’a in July. The Houthis have subsequently displayed shifting levels of engagement with the group’s proposal. In July, Alseraji, the Houthi negotiator, told me that the talks in Sana’a amounted to nothing but “chitchat”; a few weeks later, he characterized the same talks as “positive.” Discussions between the two parties continue, and the Commercial Option now seems the most probable path forward. Like all potential remedies, it is fraught with difficulties. The Houthis, for example, appear to be concerned about possible liabilities arising from the mission, and want a neutral organization to oversee it. To everyone’s surprise, the Houthis now say that they want the U.N. to take up the task.

The Safer is not sinking. It is not on fire. It has not exploded. It is not leaking oil. Yet the crew of the ship, and every informed observer, expects disaster to occur soon. But how soon? A year? Six months? Two weeks? Tomorrow? In May, Ahmed Kulaib, the former executive at sepoc, told me that “it could be after five minutes.” Then five minutes passed, and then another.

The tension surrounding the Safer crisis is generated as much by different calibrations of time as by different assessments of risk. In an instant, a leak, a crack, or a spark could cause a disaster, and even in the best-case scenario any solution would take months to execute. If the U.N. were given permission to inspect the vessel tomorrow, it would need up to eight weeks to assemble a team and to reach the Safer. As for the military, commercial, or Iranian solutions, who knows how long they’d require? A spare supertanker cannot be summoned like a taxi. Unexpected things can happen in a war zone. Because of all these conflicting scenarios with unclear time frames, the Safer crisis feels at once urgent and endless. Each passing day seems like proof to one side that the worries about the ship are overblown, and to the other that one more inch on a bomb’s fuse has burned. The crisis unfolds at the speed of rust.

These days in Yemen, the smart money flows to the pessimists. The war has already taken so much from the country. This summer, I crossed from Saudi Arabia into northern Yemen with a convoy of Saudi soldiers. The border control was in a concrete shack with a tin roof, next to a creaky iron gate surrounded by barbed-wire fencing. A Yemeni flag waved atop a pole a few yards from the fence. We drove south, along dirt roads, through coalition-controlled territory, to the coastal town of Midi. Sudanese soldiers from the coalition walked past the convoy in the opposite direction, in the midday heat. The front line with the Houthi militia was ten miles to the south. The Safer was another sixty miles south of that.

We arrived at a bombed-out seaside promenade. A carpet of discarded plastic bottles fringed the walkway, and every shelter was marked with the dents of gunfire. Ali Seraj, the governor of Midi, met me at the promenade, with a white baseball cap, rectangular sunglasses, and a defeated air. He showed me the sights, such as they were. He said that in 2015 the area had been a front line of the war. Houthi soldiers had destroyed hundreds of boats, and the local fishing industry—the main livelihood of workingmen in his region—had collapsed, just as it had in many other parts of littoral Yemen. Later, we drove down the coast, where hundreds of bullet-riddled fishing boats lay stranded in rows at the water’s edge. Seraj hoped that the fishermen could eventually mend their vessels and return to work. But a major leak from the Safer would extinguish that hope, blanketing the coastline with Marib crude.

We walked along a wooden boardwalk through clusters of mangroves, toward the Red Sea. Children were playing in the gray-blue shallows, shrieking and giggling. The previous day, I had received a briefing from a Saudi Army officer about how many sea mines were in the water, and I asked the governor if it was safe to swim in this spot. Seraj did not directly answer the question, but noted that the area had been swept for explosives.

The commanding officer in our convoy was anxious to keep our time outside of military vehicles short, in case of an attack, and he ordered us to return to our trucks. Before we walked back along the boardwalk, I asked Seraj what an oil spill would mean for his region. Turning from the sea, he said, without emotion, “A huge catastrophe.” ♦

An earlier version of this article misspelled Karim Abuhamad’s last name.


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