The Red Sea time bomb

The Red Sea time bomb
© Getty Images

Failed governance has consequences. Earlier this month, the Lebanese people suffered the devastating impact of failed governance when two explosions occurred at the Port of Beirut, causing at least 220 deaths, 6,000 injured, $15 billion in property damage, affecting an estimated 300,000 people and leaving as many as 170,000 homeless — simply because the government failed to store 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate properly. When governments fail, people die.

Yemen represents the most dire consequences of state failure. The Houthi militia and the Hadi-led government are embroiled in a long-running civil war while 24 million people — or 80 percent of the population — are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. The Houthis have also lit the fuse of an environmental time bomb five miles off Yemen’s Red Sea coast that will not only have a devastating effect on the Yemeni people but far reaching consequences across the Middle East and the world.  

For more than five years, a stranded and disabled rusting oil tanker, the FSO Safer, has been at risk of sinking or exploding. The 1,188-foot tanker, carrying over one million barrels of light crude oil, has been moored near the hotly contested port city of Hudaydah since the outbreak of Yemen’s civil war. Today, the structural condition of the tanker has deteriorated significantly; volatile gases are building up in the storage tanks, and water has leaked into its engine room. A full breach of the FSO Safer hull would spill four times the oil of the disastrous 1989 Exxon Valdez — in  a fragile marine environment amid a war and humanitarian crisis. Even worse, given the complexity of this war, an errant bullet or shell from any one of the combatants could trigger a blast as large as Beirut’s August 4th disaster prompting a historic oil spill. Clean-up efforts would be daunting — given the insecurity of being in a war zone and the additional health risks from COVID-19.


The solution is simple, in theory.

The oil must be siphoned out and the tanker moved to a scrapping facility. The problem, however, is that the Houthi rebels have yet to honor their previous promises to allow the United Nations to implement this logistical and technical solution. In fact, the Houthis are using this floating bomb as a bargaining chip to demand a broader agreement that would include assurances on the distribution of the oil proceeds.

An oil spill from the FSO Safer would upend the lives of millions of Yemenis and certainly worsen the country’s humanitarian crisis. A spill would also lead to the closure of the Hudaydah port, potentially for months, shutting an important gateway for humanitarian and commercial goods for a country that imports up to 90 percent of its food.  

An oil spill off the shores of Yemen would also have regional consequences. Red Sea maritime commerce, representing 10 percent of the global trade, could be disrupted. Rare marine life, including coral reefs amid the pristine waters of the Red Sea, would be devastated. Depending on the time of year, water currents could widen the oil spill all the way to the Suez Canal, which could result in billions of dollars in damages to coastal cities on the Red Sea, including damage to desalination plants, islands, and tourist destinations. 

The FSO Safer also poses a novel foreign policy question. What should the international community do when a rebel militia fails to mitigate an imminent environmental disaster in their territorial waters that will lead to catastrophic results for millions of innocent people, inflict massive marine damage, destroy the primary port for food imports, and threaten global trade?

The United States and the international community must act to find a solution to this impending crisis — and yet no nation is leading.

Clearly, the Trump administration, particularly during this election season, has demonstrated no intent to find a solution. The Iranians, with some leverage over the Houthis, have been unable (or uninterested) to convince the rebels to act responsibly. For all of the commentary about great power competition, neither the Russians nor the Chinese have the influence to blunt this environmental risk. The United Nations simply cannot force itself onto a rusting tanker in the middle of a war. And so, the FSO Safer continues to deteriorate in the Red Sea.

The best hope for a solution may rest with a Biden administration — if he wins in November and if the FSO Safer can remain intact for another six months. Obviously, a Biden presidency will be overburdened with domestic and international crises from day one. But a reinvigorated State Department coupled with renewed American leadership could avoid the FSO Safer catastrophe at minimal cost at home with meaningful results abroad.

Here are four recommendations for a Biden State Department:

First, the United States should leverage its relations with Oman to serve as a Houthi interlocutor and make clear that the FSO Safer is not a bargaining chip nor a source of revenue. This step could serve as a test for Oman’s new Sultan to continue cementing his country’s role as a peaceful mediator. The Houthi rebels should understand their responsibility for failing to provide the environment necessary to allow technicians to remove the oil and tow the ship to safety. If the Houthis do assist in mitigating the FSO Safer spillage risk, then they should get credit for any oil revenue contributed to the United Nations for humanitarian assistance. 


Second, the United Nations must affirmatively state that it will not deliver humanitarian assistance — including food and other essential commodities — through Hudaydah port if the FSO Safer leak expands to threaten the viability of that port. The World Food Programme and other United Nations agencies must begin now to open additional channels through the north, south, and east to offset the need for, and the risk to, Hudaydah port.

Third, if the Houthis do not consent to immediate mitigation measures to safeguard the FSO Safer, then their leadership and their families must be held responsible for any subsequent damage from a spill or blast. To motivate cooperation, the United Nations Security Council should widen Houthi leadership-related sanctions. The personal commercial and corporate bank accounts related to leadership and their families should be held in escrow — ideally by the United Nations, but at a minimum by the United States and the European Union — to help offset any potential harm and to incentivize international cooperation. 

Fourth, the United States should lean on the Saudis and Emirates to develop contingency plans, including the use of force, to safeguard and transport the FSO Safer to safety if the Houthis delay or refuse to assist in mitigating the risks of a spill or explosion. Saudi-led coalition warships have been accused by international aid groups of aggravating the humanitarian conditions in Yemen through their naval blockade, which has severely restricted the flow of fuel and goods to desperate populations in Houthi-controlled areas. A resolution of the FSO Safer necessitates a genuine effort by the coalition forces to ensure unimpaired flow of fuel and goods into Hudaydah. However, the failure of the Saudi-led coalition to find a reasonable exit to the Yemen war also has consequences; the coalition owes the international community, including the United States, a solution to the FSO Safer as a minimal down payment.

Admittedly, the FSO Safer is not a top foreign policy priority for the United States. But, smart, fast action by an incoming Biden administration would avoid an environmental catastrophe in the volatile Red Sea region and garner respect and leadership lost by the Trump administration in a world increasingly at risk of asymmetrical, non-military threats.

R. David Harden is managing director of the Georgetown Strategy Group and former assistant administrator at USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance, where he oversaw U.S. assistance to all global crises. Follow him on Twitter at @Dave_Harden.