Saudi Arabia warns of 'oil spot' seen near Yemen's decaying 'Safer' tanker

The kingdom says ship has "reached a critical state of degradation" in letter to UN

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An "oil spot" has been seen close to an abandoned tanker off the western coast of Yemen, Saudi Arabia warned the UN late on Wednesday amid fears that a leak on the rusting hulk could cause environmental devastation along the Red Sea.

The FSO Safer tanker, once used to offload crude produced in Yemen to tankers for export, is moored off the coast of Hodeidah and holds nearly 1.1 million barrels of oil. But the decades old vessel has been abandoned since the start of the Yemen war in 2015 without upkeep and proper monitoring.

As cracks have appeared experts, the UN, as well as the Saudi and Yemeni governments, have issued warnings about the potential catastrophe if swift action is not taken.

“The tanker has reached a critical state of degradation, and the situation is a serious threat to all Red Sea countries, particularly Yemen and Saudi Arabia,” the kingdom’s UN Ambassador Abdallah Al Mouallimi wrote in a letter to the UN Security Council.

The oil spot was seen in a shipping transit area 50 kilometres west of the tanker.

“This dangerous situation must not be left unaddressed,” Mr Al Mouallimi said.

If the oil spills, it will have devastating consequences for the Arab world’s poorest country which is already dealing with a civil war and a severe humanitarian crisis.

The ambassador said that “a pipeline attached to the vessel is suspected to have been separated from the stabilizers holding it to the bottom and is now floating".

The UN has tried to send a team to assess the risk amid international calls for action but so far efforts to even reach the vessel let alone unload the oil or make the rusting hulk safe have been hampered by the Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

The UN gave a warning that the tanker could spill four times as much oil as during the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster off Alaska.

Earlier this week, Saudi Arabia requested a meeting with Arab environment ministers to discuss the issue of the rusting tanker.

The meeting aimed to "find an appropriate solution to avoid an environmental catastrophe due to the failure to maintain the oil ship Safer anchored off the Ras Isa oil port in the Red Sea since 2015", the Arab League said.

Last month, the Houthis said a team of UN engineers would be allowed to visit the ship but reports suggest the rebels have barred them from boarding.

The government agreed, without any conditions, for a UN team to arrive and inspect the tanker.