Yemen's 'floating bomb' tanker: Millions kept safe by skeleton crew

A cigarette lit in the wrong place ‘could cause the ship to explode’

Moored off the coast of Yemen’s western port of Ras Issa, a decaying 45-year-old tanker is manned by a skeleton crew of five to seven people at all times.

For years, these men have been keeping the giant from leaking 1.1 million barrels of oil – or worse, exploding, killing them and the armed Houthi rebels on board.

Named the Safer Floating Storage and Offloading, it was due for decommissioning in 2015, to be replaced by a land-based terminal, when civil war broke out in Yemen.

Since then, experts say, the crew has been unable to obtain any supplies or replacement parts.

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If you've got men with guns, men who might want to have a cigarette, that poses a greatly heightened risk of igniting an explosion

Technically Yemeni-flagged, the ship is operated by the Safer Exploration and Production Operations Company and the crew’s intimate knowledge of the ship’s structure is the only thing maintaining the delicate status quo.

"The team on board is keeping the vessel on life support and are doing a very impressive job at managing that," said David Soud, head of research and analysis at maritime security consultancy IR Consilium, which has published in-depth reports on the Safer with the Atlantic Council.

Corrosion, natural wear and tear, failing systems and the vapour from dilapidated storage tanks pose risks of an explosion that could be provoked by a single spark, Mr Soud said.

"If you've got men with guns, men who might want to have a cigarette, men who might want to charge their cell phone in the wrong place at the wrong time, that poses a greatly heightened risk of igniting an explosion," he told The National.

"The technical team that is on the Safer, of course, knows all the risks and are extremely well versed – they're expert in those things. The Houthis are not."

Gaining access to the ship is as volatile as the situation on board.

The Houthis claim repeatedly that they are extending a hand while simultaneously stonewalling UN attempts to board it for inspection.

They agreed in June to allow a team on board, but later retracted the promise.

Britain’s ambassador to Yemen, Michael Aron, said gathering the UN team would take at least a month as its members are being mobilised from different parts of the world.

"There are nearly 17 engineers from a Singaporean company for whom the Houthis agreed to provide visas," Mr Aron said in a statement to the press in June.

The unit has yet to access the tanker and their visa status remains unclear.

Frustrated with the stagnation, Yemen's government accused the rebels of using the Safer as a bargaining chip to "make political and financial gains".

Yemen’s foreign minister Mohammed Al Hadrami said on Monday that the Houthis are using a deceptive approach to prevent the team of experts from reaching the tanker.

“The rebels are setting unreasonable conditions and justifications to stop this from happening,” he said.

Maritime lawyer Ian Ralby believes the problem goes beyond making immediate profits.

“Everybody has been focusing on the oil but they are blind to the fact that the Houthis are looking for an infrastructure,” he said.

“Despite the ship’s decrepit situation, they see potential for it. So the only way to maintain that interest while also neutralising the threat of the spill is to replace it with a seaworthy vessel,” he said.

A newer, double-hulled supertanker would not be as easily affected by sea mines, such as those used in the 2019 Gulf of Oman tanker attacks.

The looming environmental disaster posed by a spill or an explosion threatens fisheries and coastal ecosystems along the Red Sea coast off Hodeidah. A spill could also contaminate desalination plants, which provide vital drinking water for Yemenis already suffering from unreliable and scarce water resources, exacerbating the world’s worst cholera outbreak.

About 80 per cent of all humanitarian aid to the country flows through Hodeidah, Salif and Ras Issa, all in the country’s west. Millions of Yemenis rely on donated wheat, grain and rice, says the UN Development Programme.

Who else would be affected? 

It is not only Yemen's population that stands to suffer from a potential Safer disaster. Shipping in one of the world's busiest thoroughfares, Bab Al Mandeb, could be affected, as could the food security, fisheries and desalination plants of neighbouring Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Djibouti.

The heads of the EU missions to Yemen will hold the Houthis accountable in the event of a regional catastrophe due to their blockade on the tanker, the delegation said in a statement on Tuesday.

More than 8.4 million people would be exposed to harmful levels of pollutants if a fire breaks out aboard the Safer and the overall impact of an oil spill would cost an estimated $1.5 billion, the UN said. 

Why has nobody tried to take the ship by force?

It would be nearly impossible to militarily storm the ship without igniting a fatal spark that could lead to a deadly explosion, Mr Ralby said.

“It’s a terrible idea. It could blow up and can trigger other [vessels] to do the same.”

Being connected to the Marib-Ras Isa oil pipeline, military action could also cause a secondary spill if the ship becomes detached.

Moreover, the UN, who deal with the Houthis as a de facto authority in the country’s northern region, “cannot do anything without their consent”, a former adviser to the foreign minister of the internationally recognised government said on condition of anonymity.

The official believes the solution lies in offloading the oil, but did not say what could happen beyond this point.

Yemen’s government supports the idea of selling the oil to pay salaries across the country, the former adviser said.

“But unfortunately, the Houthis are seeking political gains from it. They are insisting to keep the funds for themselves if the oil is offloaded.”

The Yemeni government is disheartened by a lack of tangible action by the international community over the Safer, but acknowledges the limitations that the UN mission faces as it continues to mediate peace talks between the warring sides.

“The UN cannot act alone but only through member states, in particular the Security Council. The government of Yemen cannot risk taking any unilateral action that might jeopardise the situation of the tanker,” said another senior government official.

Until a tangible, long-term solution is reached and differences are put aside, the tanker and its 1.1 million barrels of oil remains a brewing reminder of what seven men can accomplish, even under threat.