A United Nations operation to transfer more than one million barrels of oil from a decaying tanker into another ship off the coast of Yemen has been completed, officials said on Friday, averting a catastrophic spill that could have devastated marine life and communities across the Red Sea.
But with one crisis averted, another looms: The recovery vessel could be stranded until thorny negotiations over who owns the transferred oil are resolved.
Yemen, the world’s poorest Arab country, has been fractured by a war that has stretched on for eight years, with territory carved up under the control of two rival governments and various militias. For years, both of those governments have claimed ownership of the oil on the decaying tanker, called the FSO Safer, hoping to gain desperately needed revenue from its sale.
“The most pressing step was to prevent oil spillover from the deteriorating FSO Safer,” said Ahmed Nagi, a senior Yemen analyst at the International Crisis Group, an organization that researches conflicts. “Now, with the salvage operation concluded, we find ourselves returning to the difficult point concerning the oil inside the tanker.”
The FSO Safer held about four times the amount of oil leaked in the disastrous Exxon Valdez spill of 1989. Moored north of the port city of Hudaydah on Yemen’s west coast, the 1,188-foot tanker was largely abandoned during the war, save for a skeleton crew, and had been poorly maintained for years.
U.N. and Yemeni experts had repeatedly warned that it was an ecological time bomb that could explode or disintegrate at any moment. Yet, international efforts to safely remove the oil sputtered for years, stymied by the multilayered conflict in Yemen — which has created one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises — and other challenges like financing and insuring the complex operation.
Finally, starting in late June, crew members worked in soaring summer temperatures over more than a month to transfer the oil to the newer, seaworthy tanker purchased by the United Nations.
“It is truly a moment of great relief for all of us,” said Achim Steiner, administrator of the United Nations Development Program.
Yemen’s war began in 2014, when fighters from the country’s powerful Houthi militia swept through the north into the capital, Sana, displacing the internationally recognized government. A military coalition led by neighboring Saudi Arabia intervened in 2015 in an attempt to restore the government, launching a devastating bombing campaign.
The Iran-linked Houthis, who have since formed a parallel government, control the area where the tanker was moored.
With the oil transfer complete, workers will take 14 to 20 days to clean the vessel’s tanks of residue, after which the United Nations plans to tow the ship to be scrapped and recycled, Mr. Steiner said.
The newer vessel will be managed and maintained by the United Nations Development Program until the end of the year and then handed over to Yemen’s state oil company, he said. But both the Houthis and the internationally recognized government claim ownership of the company.
The question of who gets the revenue from the oil sales “has been problematic” since talks about the tanker began in 2018, Mr. Nagi said.
“Any negotiation over this issue always leads to a dead end,” he added. “Leaving the tanker near a conflict zone is risky,” he said, “even if it is on a well-maintained ship. A new political understanding is needed to address this issue.”
Some Yemenis have raised concerns about whether the newer ship could simply become another, slower-moving time bomb, paralyzed by talks between hostile parties.
“The ultimate objective for everyone should be that the oil can be sold and the revenues realized from that sale could be made available for urgently needed development and humanitarian work in Yemen,” Mr. Steiner said. “For that, obviously, there are significant hurdles to be overcome.”
Still, he said, the biggest threat had been the potentially imminent oil spill, which is why the United Nations decided “to approach this project in phases.”
Negotiations between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis to reach a partial resolution to the war have dragged on, and a breakthrough that many hoped for in April never materialized, but the fighting has quieted down.
The lull in the war means it could be possible to find a middle ground between the Houthis and the internationally recognized government, Mr. Nagi said, perhaps “with some pressure from regional actors.”
Saeed Al-Batati contributed reporting from Al Mukalla, Yemen.