The Safer Oil Tanker: Diplomacy Averts Disaster

This is the story of a $20 billion disaster that did not happen.

Last month, while the United Nations General Assembly was meeting in New York City, I attended some programming on the summit’s sidelines together with my colleagues from the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations. Among them were meetings to learn more about the ongoing conflict and crisis in Yemen. While the situation in Yemen remains dire after 8 years of war, there is a recent bright spot for proactive international efforts: the successful operation to offload oil from the decaying Safer storage tanker. This enormous undertaking has prevented what could have been a colossal environmental disaster that exacerbated the situation in Yemen, and wreaked environmental, economic, and humanitarian havoc in the Middle East region.

Located on the southwestern end of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen is beloved by those familiar with its varied landscapes and its warm, smart, kind, and generous people.  It is bordered by the Red Sea to its west and the Gulf of Aden to its south.  The Romans called it Arabia Felix—Fortunate (and Fertile) Arabia.  In the United States, one is most likely to find Yemen identified with the Queen of Sheba (also known as Bilqīs or Makeda, she is one of the few female figures who appears in sacred texts of all three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), coffee (Yemenis are believed to be among the first to popularize the beverage), and the port of Aden (one of the most famous hubs in the world, connecting maritime traffic between Africa, Asia, and the Middle East).

Map of Yemen, 2012.

The past decade has seen Yemen embroiled in its fourth civil war in the post-World War II period. Its proximate cause was the response of the Zaidi Shiite-Houthis to the outcome of an all-inclusive National Dialogue Conference, which concluded in 2014. Displeased with the outcome of that political process, the Houthis’ militias, with resources and support from Iran’s government, seized Yemen’s capital of Sana’a in 2015.  That subversion of law and order in Yemen touched off a conflict that has resulted in what has been described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

One of the poorest countries in the Arab region even before the most recent stretch of violence, Yemen has been placed in a very precarious situation. Eight years of conflict, compounded by economic collapse, natural disasters, and the COVID-19 pandemic, have taken a toll on Yemenis’ ability to live with the dignity and meaning that all people deserve. The UN reported several months ago that this year “a staggering 21.6 million Yemenis require some form of humanitarian assistance as 80% of the country struggles to put food on the table and access basic services.”

Relief map of Yemen, 2002.

The National Council has a long history of engagement with Yemen through its founding President & CEO Dr. John Duke Anthony. Appreciating the richness of its cultural heritage, its natural beauty, the incisive and joyful qualities of the Yemeni people, and its long history, the Council has taken twenty delegations of American educators to the country, enabled hundreds of U.S. students to live and study Arabic in Sana’a, and sponsored educational programs about Yemen in Washington, D.C. Most recently, the Council partnered with a Yemen-based non-profit foundation dedicated to enhancing youth capabilities toward promoting peace – the Adalah (meaning “Justice” in Arabic) Foundation For Legal Development – to bring the Council’s Youth Leadership Development Model Arab League Program to Mukalla, Hadhramout.

Individuals stand together after signing an agreement

A cooperation agreement between the National Council and Yemen’s Adalah Foundation was executed last year. The two non-profit groups collaborated to bring the National Council’s Youth Leadership Development Program / Model Arab League to Yemen. The program involves an experiential learning exercise where students have the opportunity to practice representing the needs and interests of someone other than themselves during the course of simulating a diplomatic summit.

This month, the National Council underwent a monumental transformation.  Dr. Anthony stepped back from his founding, leading role to provide for Mr. H. Delano Roosevelt to take the Council forward as its second President & CEO since the NGO’s 1983 establishment. The grandson of President Franklin Delano and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, he has been serving the organization in various roles for many years and officially “took the reins” on October 1st.

I recently visited Washington to see old friends and, following on from the meetings last month, joined colleagues from the National Council on a visit to the State Department to touch base on the Arab region and Yemen in particular. Among our interests were assessing how recent developments might affect Council educational programming. We met with President Biden’s Special Envoy for Yemen, Mr. Timothy Lenderking, an experienced American diplomat who has been working tirelessly to build a political process to resolve the conflict. Special Envoy Lenderking’s and UN efforts last year led to a truce on the ground, which largely continues to hold. Our Council delegation included Mr. Roosevelt, Chairman of the Board of Directors Mr. John Pratt, Board of Directors Member and HyphenPoint LLC Principal Colonel (Ret.) Abbas Dahouk, Executive Vice President and Director of Development Mr. Patrick Mancino, and Senior Academic and Research Fellow-in-Residence Dr. Fadi Hilani.

The National Council’s delegation at the State Department.

Interestingly, I had actually crossed paths with Mr. Lenderking before! During my time working as Executive Vice President of the Huntsman Cancer Foundation, I had visited the Arabian Peninsula to promote partnerships for cancer research. In working to organize medical research meetings in Saudi Arabia, I had met Mr. Lenderking while he was serving as the Deputy Chief of Mission at the United States Embassy in Riyadh. Then, he was very helpful in assisting our health delegation and seemed to appreciate the value of promoting U.S.-Arab cooperation in global research to explore the causes of cancer at the genetic level. When I saw that years later he had been appointed as the U.S. Special Envoy for Yemen, I knew that the job’s significant expectations would be worked on with fervor by an extraordinarily public servant.

four people stand facing the camera with a popup banner saying *Office of the US Special Envoy to Yemen*

U.S. Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking (leftmost) with the National Council’s delegation, which included (from left to right after the Special Envoy) new President & CEO H. Delano Roosevelt, myself, Executive Vice President and Director of Development Patrick Mancino, Senior Academic and Research Fellow-in-Residence Dr. Fadi Hilani, and Board of Directors Member and HyphenPoint LLC Principal Colonel (Ret.) Abbas Dahouk.

Among the most fascinating things we discussed during our meeting was the work done to prevent what could easily have been one of the worst environmental disasters this century. Commentary about foreign policy failures and shortcomings is easy to find; stories about some of the significant accomplishments are not. What has happened with the Safer oil storage vessel – where an environmental, economic, and humanitarian catastrophe was averted – is something to celebrate.

The FSO Safer is an oil tanker moored off the coast of Yemen in the Red Sea as a floating storage vessel for Yemen’s inland oil fields around Marib.  Built in Japan and launched in 1976, the ship was purchased by the Yemeni state-run oil company in 1987 to provided services for Yemen’s energy sector. Parked a little more than 4 miles off the coast, it has the capacity to hold approximately 3 million barrels of oil.

The Safer is moored approximately 4 miles off the coast of Yemen in the Red Sea. Photo: United Nations.

In 2015, access to the storage tanker came under the control of Houthi militias.  The ship was neglected and fell into disrepair while 1.1 million barrels of crude oil sat inside its decaying structure floating in the Red Sea.  For years, the decrepit vessel, at risk of leaking, breaking apart, or exploding, has constituted a significant danger to the region.  The amount of oil sitting in the Safer was four times the amount that was released in the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill.

The Safer posed the risk of an environmental disaster with calamitous effects.  Scientists, diplomats, and humanitarian aid coordinators observed that its tank rupturing could not only pollute Red Sea coastlines, but also have far-reaching implications for access to food and water for millions and even disrupt the global movement of goods.  Cleanup alone from such a disaster was estimated to cost more than $20 billion and much of the damage would not be recoverable.

The Safer was at risk of creating an environmental disaster. Photo: U.S. Department of State.

A broad international coalition, including the United States through the office of the Special Envoy for Yemen, came together to address the danger.  For the past two years, the effort has been led by UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen Mr. David Gressly.  The coalition has confronted challenges both technical and diplomatic as it worked to diffuse what was literally termed a ticking bomb.  On August 11, 2023, after delicate negotiations and logistical wizardry, the UN announced that it had successfully removed as much crude oil from the tanker as was possible.  Imminent disaster had been averted.

The transfer of oil from the Safer to a replacement vessel began on July 25, 2023, and concluded on August 11. It was a complex operation as salvage crews worked for 18 days amid strong currents and summer heat navigating along the coast of a conflict zone containing sea mines. Photo: United Nations.

The full operation to deal with the Safer is not yet complete.  Work is ongoing to make the Safer’s replacement vessel safe and secure, and to move the Safer to a shipyard for scrapping.  In our meeting, we learned that there remained a funding shortfall of more than $20 million to address remaining environmental threats.  I am told that GoFundMe pages have been created by children across the globe to help remove the tanker to its final resting place, and there is a crowd funding webpage and UN platforms.

In thinking back on our meeting and the story of the Safer, I am struck by the impressive work of the diplomats and aid workers who, away from the public eye, prevented something horrible from happening. They are unsung heroes and heroines.  Witnessing American and global diplomacy succeed in proactively addressing a significant danger inspires me and should inspire us all.