The ship that became a bomb


The sudden cancellation of the Safer inspection shocked Ratcliffe. “I have always understood that there are a lot of risks here in terms of environmental and humanitarian impact,” he told me. “But I honestly believed we would be able to come up with some sort of solution fairly quickly.” When the Houthis withdrew their support for an inspection, he continued, “it became very clear to me that this was going to be a much more politically sensitive issue than I expected – it was the first. red flag ”.

A second red flag was raised on May 27, 2020, when an alarm sounded on the Safer, indicating a leak in the engine room. Chief engineer Yasser al-Qubati rushed to the bottom of the ship to see what was going on. He was horrified to discover that a corroded pipe had burst and spat seawater into the engine room as if it had come from an open fire hydrant.

Usually, an oil tanker like the Safer uses seawater as a coolant. Water is sucked in by a “sea chest,” an exterior valve that sits below the waterline, pumped throughout the vessel, and then discharged. Qubati determined that the leak needed to be repaired without delay: if the engine room filled with seawater, the Safer would sink.

The crew worked five days, with little sleep, to stem the tide. The heat, humidity and lack of ventilation created a foul odor at the bottom of the ship. The men attempted to empty the engine room of water using a pump powered by a diesel generator, but the generator failed. Fortunately, an electrician visiting the ship fixed it within hours. A rudimentary clamp was affixed to the broken pipe while a welder fashioned a patch for the hole. A team of divers inexperienced on tankers was summoned from Hodeidah to attach a steel plate to the sea chest, in order to stop the water from entering. The divers succeeded – an impressive feat – but the plaque was only a partial solution. Even today, water continues to enter from the chest of the sea and must be pumped using the energy from the generators on the deck.

After this near-disaster, the Houthis took a more active role on the ship. A small unit of soldiers was detached to board the ship. They carried weapons, which made the Sepoc Nervous crew members, given their fears about flammable gas leaks. The soldiers also installed surveillance cameras all over the ship.

As a result of the thorax incident, no one could doubt the fragility of the ship. The UN contacted a Norwegian spill response company called NorLense, and purchased a self-inflating dam about a kilometer long. It could be placed on the surface of the sea and then installed around the Safer like a giant layer, in case the ship starts leaking oil. Due to the breakdown in negotiations with the Houthis, the barrage has not yet been deployed, but it has been transported to the region and is ready for use.

I was told that Qubati, the chief engineer, could not speak to me because he feared for his life. Many Sepoc employees have felt threatened by the Houthis and their communications are being monitored, on and off the ship. But, by another way, I managed to read a report that Qubati wrote for his superiors at Sepoc shortly after the leak. He describes a ship that “advances for the worse every day” and a crew working under unbearable stress, making one desperate choice after another to keep the ship from sinking. He concludes: “Science, mind, logic, experience. . . all confirm that disaster is imminent, but when [it] will happen exactly, Allah only knows.

The Red Sea is a natural wonder sometimes known as the Baby Ocean. The robust and relatively young coral systems in its waters stretch for twelve hundred miles, from the Gulf of Aqaba, near the Sinai Peninsula, to the Dahlak Archipelago, off the coast of Eritrea. Coral reefs support a unique and abundant ecology. Fifteen percent of the Red Sea’s marine life is endemic: many species, including fabulously arranged parrotfish, wrasses, and dottybacks, live nowhere but in its warm waters. Along the sea coast and on its many sparsely populated islands, mangrove systems abound. (Mangroves are nurseries for young fish and other delicate species, and provide nesting sites for migrating birds.)

In July, I visited the Farasan Islands, located about twenty-five miles west of Jazan, the southernmost town in Saudi Arabia, fifty miles from the Yemeni border. Normally, the Farasan Islands are a tourist destination, especially for divers. But unsurprisingly, given the pandemic and the region’s proximity to a conflict zone, there appeared to be no tourists on the ferry I took. The Houthi militia frequently sends drones with explosives into southern Saudi Arabia. One had recently hit a commercial plane and others had detonated near civilian areas. At least one had struck a boat bound for Farasan. The day before I landed in Jazan, the Saudi army had intercepted two drones heading towards the region.

The Farasan Islands are beautiful, though the weather can be overwhelming – it was one hundred and eighteen degrees when I got off the ferry. A small town on the main island contains an Ottoman fort and the resplendent ruins of a 1920s pearl merchant’s mansion. White sand beaches rivaling those of the Maldives seemingly occupy every part of the coastline. The ocean is warm and turquoise. Every April, a festival celebrates the arrival of parrot fish in a shallow bay called Al-Hasis. Hundreds of mainland revelers join local fishermen and wade waist-deep in the water with small nets to make a catch.

I stood in the bay with my pants rolled up and imagined the oil blackening the water. We were about a hundred miles from the Safer. Models presented to the UK government suggest the Farasan Islands could be affected within days if a spill occurs between October and March, when the Red Sea current heads north. But regardless of the immediate direction of the current, any major spill would pose a serious threat to marine life in the region. I was wondering if the parrotfish would keep coming back if the Safer sank. The catches of Farasan fishermen would be affected; the livelihoods of fishermen closer to the site in Yemen would be destroyed.

“Only three hundred and sixty-seven followers?” Maria is not an asset to the abbey.
Caricature by David Borchart

The Saudi government is now working vigorously to mitigate the threat of a major oil spill in the Red Sea. Officials are concerned about the potential long-term effects of Safer on marine ecology and international tourism, which the country hopes to promote over the next decade. Even more urgently, Saudi authorities are concerned about the effect of a spill on key infrastructure along the coast, including desalination plants that turn seawater into potable water. About half of Saudi Arabia’s drinking water is produced by desalination.

In Riyadh, I met Saudi Deputy Environment Minister Osama Faqeeha and two senior officials, all of whom were engaged in planning for the Safer-related worst-case scenario. They did not disclose their specific plans, but said they were already procuring planes, skimmers and dispersants to mitigate a spill. Part of their strategy was to place booms in the sea to prevent oil from reaching desalination plants.

The men were old enough to be haunted by the memory of Saddam Hussein, in 1991, dumping some eleven million barrels of oil into the Persian Gulf, to stop a sea assault by the United States. The oil spill was the largest in history, and in some places the slick was five inches thick. It polluted five hundred miles of the Saudi coast, killing tens of thousands of seabirds, poisoning the water column and causing lasting damage to the region. A subsequent US study found that, twelve years after the spill, more than eight million cubic meters of oily sediment remained on the Saudi coastline. One of the two top Saudi officials, Mohammed Qurban, who heads a government group called the National Center for Wildlife, told me his organization continues to chronicle the toxic effects of the 1991 oil spill.

Faqeeha sounded fatalistic when he spoke of the Safer. He said it would be much better to sort it out before a spill did occur, but added that he was fundamentally powerless to do so. “We hope for the best and prepare for the worst,” he said.

If each side committed to solving the crisis, all of the oil could be taken out of Safer in about a month. Another tanker could dock alongside the ship and, while pumping inert gas into the Safer’s oil tanks, suck up its Marib crude. After that, a decision on the fate of the Safer could be made without fear of a spill, fire or explosion. There are many junkyards where the ship could be dismantled, so that its parts can be sold. Still, the Houthis have thwarted attempts by the UN to take action to phase out the oil, despite pleading with the organization for help in 2018. What do the Houthis want then?

In July, I spoke to Ebrahim Alseraji, who had led the Houthis’ technical negotiations with the UN, until the talks were called off in the spring. He said the Houthis were eager to resolve the impasse, but not at any cost. They wanted to “maintain the economic value” currently in place in the Hodeidah region. In other words, they wanted to continue using the Safer as an offshore terminal – or at least have another vessel moored in the same position, with the same volume of oil on board. The estimated value of the Safer’s current oil payload is approximately sixty million dollars. As we spoke, the Houthis fought the coalition for control of the Marib oil fields. Alseraji could imagine a future in which a de facto Houthi state in northern Yemen could generate significant revenue by exporting oil from Ras Issa. Nonetheless, he said, the Houthis were “open to all solutions” from any party except Israel.

I asked Alseraji why it had not been possible to arrange an inspection of the Safer. UN sources told me the Houthis have made unreasonable demands, such as asking their own divers to accompany those hired by the UN, and that they want more and more maintenance to be done. on a ship that seems unrecoverable. Alseraji claimed that the UN had reneged on several promises and had “not been transparent”.

As the last round of talks was called off, one of the clan chiefs, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, tweeted, in Arabic, “Yes, God forbid, an environmental catastrophe occurs with the explosion of the Safer, the world will not stop for a week, like in Suez, but will stop for a long time. And that will stop the navigation of Navy ships and things. We hold the United Nations responsible.


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