Momentum for change could be building in Yemen

Joint efforts to prevent a major oil spill and secure the release of several UN workers held by extremists show the conflict's intractability is cracking

A view on the decaying FSO Safer oil tanker moored in the Red Sea off the coast of Yemen's western Hodeidah province on July 15. EPA
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If the conflict in Yemen can be defined by anything, it is its intractability and the horrendous toll it has taken on its people. Fighting in the country’s most recent war persisted for most of the past decade, the various factions remain politically poles apart and one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises has dragged on for years. For a long time, hope of making any progress towards resolving the situation seemed naive. But that could be beginning to change.

Recently, the UN said 1.14 million barrels of oil on board a rusting Red Sea tanker called the FSO Safer had been transferred to another ship, averting an immediate environmental catastrophe 8 kilometres off the Yemeni coast that would have cost an estimated $20 billion to clean up. The UN had been warning for years that the 47-year-old Safer was at risk of breaking up or exploding after it was left unattended and decaying following the outbreak of war. If that had been allowed to happen, it would have spilt four times as much oil into the sea as the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster off Alaska.

This technically difficult maritime operation took years to organise and execute, and plans were frequently bogged down in political, diplomatic and financial wrangling. Eventually the international community, the Yemeni government and the country’s Houthi rebels agreed on a way forward and have managed to avert what UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said could have been “a monumental environmental and humanitarian catastrophe”.

There have been other encouraging signs of progress. This month the UAE helped to secure the release of several UN staff members who were abducted in Yemen 18 months ago. The five men, including a Bangladeshi citizen, were seized in Abyan province 18 months ago by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula after returning from a field mission. Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh's Prime Minister, expressed her gratitude in a phone call with President Sheikh Mohamed on Monday for the UAE’s efforts.

The same day, US special envoy Tim Lenderking arrived in the Gulf as part of efforts to help “launch a comprehensive peace process” in Yemen, the State Department said.

These developments have taken place amid a period of relative calm in Yemen. The UN helped to mediate a truce last year between the government and the Iran-backed Houthis, ending much of the fighting. This has created the space for progress on issues such as the Safer and hostages.

But much more work remains to be done. The oil from the Safer is now on another vessel that a senior employee at the Yemeni oil told The National was 15 years old and “inefficient from a technical and financial standpoint”. There is also a $22 million funding gap to tow the Safer to a scrapyard. Mr Lenderking will work with donors to help raise the money and “address all residual environment threats”, according to the State Department. Other catastrophic developments in Yemen, like the spread of illnesses and increasing poverty levels, must also garner the world’s attention.

There is momentum building and the considerable benefits to be gained from compromise and dialogue should be plain to see for all parties involved. It is time to build on these gains and begin to move forward from managing the conflict to bringing it to an end.

Published: August 16, 2023, 3:00 AM