Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” is reflective of the Arab world today, which goes through a vicious cycle of disasters, taking heavy toll on the depoliticized and downtrodden. Yet these tragedies are sparked by the same issue: handling any situation with a deeply-rooted and outdated sense of “zero-sum games.”

The political “insanity” that led to the Beirut’s blast in August is replicated on a larger scale by the Houthis in Yemen, as they are using the imminent threat of a catastrophic oil spill from FSO Safer – an abandoned, decaying oil vessel with a cargo of 1.14 million barrels of crude still on board, in the Red Sea – for their political leverage and blackmailing.

The value of the oil, estimated to be roughly US$70 million, has become a point of contention in negotiations between the Houthis and the Yemeni government, both of whom asserted claims to the cargo and vessel.

The UN described the potential oil spill as four times bigger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill off of Alaska.

In July, the UN described the potential oil spill as four times bigger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill off of Alaska. The following month, UN Spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric stated, “The Secretary-General urges the removal of any obstacles to the efforts needed to mitigate the dangers posed by the Safer tanker without delay.”

The oil tanker has been unattended since March 2015, when the Houthis took control of the coastline surrounding its mooring in the Red Sea, just offshore the Yemeni city of Al-Hudaydah. Over the past five years, the Houthis have been rejecting UN access to inspect the deteriorating oil tanker.

The Houthis even went further by threatening to target the vessel if the international community accessed the FSO Safer without their permission, according to Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies.

Such a move indicates the Houthi dogged intention to maintain the status quo, hoping to be perceived by other nations as a key player in the region when they are brought to the negotiation table along with feuding forces.

The politicization of the issue by the Houthis, coupled with a shrug-off policy adopted by neighboring countries and the international community, could eventually trigger an explosion and/or oil spill on a scale large enough to destroy entire ecosystems in the Red Sea for decades. And, it could inflict damage on all the countries who share the Red Sea coastline, not to mention a fatal impact on the estimated 28 million people who rely on these ecosystems for their livelihoods.

 Houthis FSO Safer

Graphic courtesy of the Atlantic Council

Apart from the significant harm an oil spill would pose the Yemeni people, global trade would likely be heavily affected. In such a scenario, an oil leakage would result in shutting Al-Hudaydah and Saleef ports, only 50 kilometers away from FSO Safer’s location. This, in turn, would obstruct both global trade movement as well as the humanitarian aid delivered to millions of Yemenis.

The 44-year-old vessel’s validity has expired since marine tankers of its size and nature normally have only 25 years of operational life. Now, seawater has leaked into the vessel while highly combustible off-gases have likely built up in the holding chamber. Following a leak in the cooling system, water entered the machine room, prompting the United Nations Security Council to hold a special meeting in July.

Even worse, amidst the complexity of the war in Yemen, just a stray bullet from a shoot-out between rival factions could trigger a devastating explosion of the FSO Safer, comparable to the Beirut port’s magnitude, with more catastrophic implications related to a wider-scale leakage. Indeed, the oil on board is characterized by its light features that can expand and reach further north to the Suez Canal in Egypt.

The oil on board is characterized by its light features that can expand and reach further north to the Suez Canal in Egypt.

The FSO Safer is technically owned and operated by the SAFER Exploration and Production Operation Company, with administrative offices in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a. The crude oil produced in Marib has been transported to the vessel – through its attached pipeline – to be stored for export. However, since 2015, there have been no oil exports from the tank, and its content has been stockpiled since then.

A breakthrough was on the horizon in July after the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) reached an agreement with the Houthis to dispatch a team of the UN inspectors to conduct initial assessments and possible repairs to the rusting tank. Talks also touched on hiring a commercial contractor to undertake the more extensive repairs and prepare to extract the crude oil.

According to the Sana’a Center findings, the process is to be supervised by the Houthis and the UNOPS and was scheduled to kick off in the third week of August. But the Houthis have once again dragged their feet and no action has been taken yet.

Houthi Feet-dragging Strategy

Keeping the international community under a constant threat of an environmental catastrophe is viewed by the Houthis as a functional strategy that can achieve several gains. The faction aims to exercise as much pressure as possible to bring more international spotlight on Yemen and themselves. This would be a valuable bargaining chip during broader talks of peace with the UN and the Saudi and UAE side.

Though, whether this strategy works out or not, they can still play another trump card. If the pressure tactic is not successful, the Houthis will eventually cooperate with the UN or another entity to solve the issue. At that point, the Houthis hope to be portrayed as saviors and would receive regional and international praise for preventing a human and environmental disaster from happening. And like the bogeyman strategy, their cooperation is likely to be rewarded.

Domestically, the international worry about the environmental ramifications rather than the economic ones is also allowing the Houthis to frame the global community as being more concerned with harm to the ecosystem than to the Yemeni people. This, in turn, fuels the Houthi aim to gain more popularity at home as a resistance movement.

Houthi Attempts to Wash Their Hands

In an effort to dry up financial resources that the Houthis use in their war with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, both the Saudi-led coalition and Yemeni government are preventing fuel from entering Al-Hudaydah. This impacts the Houthis no doubt but also ordinary Yemenis who are paying the greatest cost.

The Houthis also view the UN as part of the problem and consider the organization an untrustworthy partner who failed to prevent the Saudi-UAE led coalition from wrecking Yemen.

“The blockade imposed by the Saudi-led coalition is preventing maintenance workers from doing their work on the ship.”

Hussain al-Bukhaiti, a pro-Houthi journalist, told Al-Jazeera English, “The blockade imposed by the Saudi-led coalition is preventing maintenance workers from doing their work on the ship.”

“The gas has been built up and the entire ship is on the verge of explosion,” al-Bukhaiti added. “That is why we are calling the UN to bring a well-known team, because if they bring anyone without experience, and something bad happens there, and the ship explodes, I am sure the UN will right away blame Sana’a and the Houthis.”

Blaming both Saudi Arabia and the UN for the possible tragedy holds an implicit request from the Houthi side, for Saudi Arabia to end its blockade, and for the UN to work on the Houthi terms and grant more favors to the group.

Shifting the Pendulum

In reality, the Houthis’ cooperation with the UN could lead to a win-win compromise, since holding the Houthis accountable for such a disaster would cost them much credibility and sympathy among their backers at home and abroad.

Saudi Arabia does not wish to engage in a direct dialogue with the Houthis with whom it is at war. Yet, it should look to beyond-the-war effort to avoid a devastation that could threaten its national security. It is in the interest of no one in the region to see a war escalation where consequences could go beyond control.

Additionally, the UN, with the help of the European Union, the African Union, and neighboring countries should offer to cover the costs of assessing and securing the vessel as well as the expenses of oil extraction.

There is no point in repairing the ship if the value of oil and scrap metal are less than the cost of the restoration work that is needed.

Overall, there is no point in repairing the ship if the value of oil and scrap metal are less than the cost of the restoration work that is needed. The crude oil on board should be sold and the revenue be split between Yemen’s internationally-recognized government and the Houthis.

“If the Houthis grant permission to extract the oil, they could use it for their power station in Hudaydah,” said Abdulghani Al-Iryani, Senior Researcher at the Sana’a Center.

Sooner or later, the Houthis will have to cooperate with the UN, because they won’t be able to avoid the blame for causing a horrifying large-scale catastrophe, which would almost certainly mean the death of the group. Eventually, the wider Arab World needs to root out the long-entrenched zero-sum games and rather adopt win-win compromises to avoid further escalations that always backfire while the innocent populations pay the price.



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