The Ship That Became a Bomb

The sudden cancellation of the Safer inspection shocked Ratcliffe. “I always understood that there was a lot of risk here in terms of environmental and humanitarian impact,” he told me. “But I did honestly believe that we would be able to get to some kind of solution fairly quickly.” When the Houthis withdrew their support for an inspection, he went on, “it became very clear to me that this was going to be a politically much trickier issue than what I had been expecting—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. The 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 was spewing seawater into the engine room as if from an opened fire hydrant.

Usually, an oil tanker like the Safer uses seawater as a coolant. Water is drawn inside through 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 fixed without delay: if the engine room filled with seawater, the Safer would sink.

The crew worked for five days, with little sleep, to stem the flow. The heat, humidity, and lack of ventilation created a vile smell deep inside the ship. The men attempted to clear the engine room of water using a pump powered by a diesel generator, but the generator failed. Fortunately, an electrician who happened to be visiting the ship repaired it within several hours. A rudimentary clamp was affixed to the broken pipe while a welder fashioned a patch for the hole. A team of divers with no experience on oil tankers was summoned from Hodeidah to fasten a steel plate over the sea chest, to stop the ingress of water. The divers succeeded—an impressive feat—but the plate was only a partial fix. Even today, some water continues to enter from the sea chest, and must be pumped out using power from the on-deck generators.

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

Following the sea-chest incident, nobody could doubt the fragility of the vessel. The U.N. contacted a Norwegian spill-response firm called NorLense, and bought a self-inflating boom approximately a kilometre in length. It could be placed on the surface of the sea and then fitted around the Safer like a giant diaper, in case the ship started to leak oil. Because of the breakdown in negotiations with the Houthis, the boom 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 monitored, on and off the ship. But, through another route, I managed to read a report that Qubati wrote for his superiors at sepoc soon after the leak. He describes a ship that “moves forwards each day towards the worst” and a crew that works under unbearable stress, making one desperate choice after another to prevent the vessel from sinking. He concludes, “Science, mind, logic, experience . . . all confirm that the disaster is imminent, but when [it] will exactly happen, Allah alone knows.”

The Red Sea is a natural marvel that is sometimes known as the Baby Ocean. The robust and relatively young coral systems in its waters extend twelve hundred miles, from the Gulf of Aqaba, by the Sinai Peninsula, to the Dahlak Archipelago, off the coast of Eritrea. The coral reefs support a unique and bountiful ecology. Fifteen per cent of the Red Sea’s marine life is endemic: many species, including fabulously arrayed parrot fish, wrasses, and dottybacks, live nowhere other than in its bath-warm waters. Along the coast of the sea, 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 migratory birds.)

In July, I visited the Farasan Islands, which lie about twenty-five miles west of Jazan, the southernmost Saudi Arabian city, which is fifty miles from the Yemeni border. In normal times, 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 seemed 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 aircraft, and others had detonated near civilian areas. At least one had hit a boat bound for Farasan. On the day before I landed in Jazan, the Saudi Arabian military had intercepted two drones heading for the region.

The Farasan Islands are gorgeous, though the weather can be oppressively hot: it was a 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 pearl trader’s mansion from the nineteen-twenties. White-sand beaches rivalling those in the Maldives occupy seemingly every stretch of coastline. The ocean is lukewarm and turquoise. Every April, there is a festival celebrating the arrival of parrot fish into a shallow bay called Al-Hasis. Hundreds of revellers from the mainland join the local fishermen and wade waist-deep into the water with small nets to make a catch.

I stood in the bay with my pants rolled up and imagined oil blackening the water. We were about a hundred miles from the Safer. The models presented to the U.K. government suggest that the Farasan Islands could be hit within a few days if a spill occurred between October and March, when the Red Sea’s current is northward. But, regardless of the current’s immediate direction, any major spill would pose a severe threat to marine species in the region. I wondered if the parrot fish would keep returning if the Safer went under. The catches of fishermen in the Farasans would be affected; the livelihoods of fishermen closer to the site in Yemen would be destroyed.

Three nuns looking at a laptop.

“Only three hundred and sixty-seven followers? Maria’s not an asset to the abbey.”

Cartoon by David Borchart

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

In Riyadh, I met with the Saudi Arabian deputy minister for the environment, Osama Faqeeha, and two senior officials, all of whom were engaged in worst-case-scenario planning related to the Safer. They would not divulge their precise plans, but said that they were already procuring planes, skimmers, and dispersants to mitigate a spill. Part of their strategy was to place booms in the sea to stop the oil from reaching the desalination plants.

The men were old enough to be haunted by the memory of Saddam Hussein, in 1991, releasing some eleven million barrels of oil into the Persian Gulf, to stop a marine 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 creating lasting damage for the region. A subsequent U.S. study found that, twelve years after the spill, more than eight million cubic metres of oily sediment remained on the Saudi shoreline. One of the two senior Saudi officials, Mohammed Qurban, who heads a government group called the National Center for Wildlife, told me that his organization continues to chronicle the toxic effects of the 1991 spill.

Faqeeha sounded fatalistic when he talked about the Safer. He said that it would be much better to address the problem before a spill occurred, but added that he was basically powerless to do so. “We hope for the best, and prepare for the worst,” he said.

If every party were committed to a resolution of the crisis, all the oil could be removed from the Safer within a month or so. Another tanker could berth next to the ship and—while pumping inert gas into the Safer’s oil tanks—suck out its Marib crude. After that, a decision on the fate of the Safer could be made without fears of a spill, a fire, or an explosion. There are many scrap yards where the ship could be disassembled, so that its parts could be sold. Yet the Houthis have frustrated the U.N.’s attempts to take any steps toward removing the oil, despite having begged 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 U.N., until the talks were cancelled in the spring. He said that the Houthis were anxious to resolve the standoff, but not at any cost. They wished to “maintain the economic value” currently in place in the Hodeidah region. In other words, they wanted to keep using the Safer as an offshore terminal—or at least to have another ship moored in the same position, with the same volume of oil on board. The estimated worth of the Safer’s current payload of oil is about sixty million dollars. While we spoke, the Houthis were fighting the coalition for control of the oil fields in Marib. 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. Nevertheless, 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. U.N. sources told me that the Houthis had made unreasonable demands, such as asking for their own divers to accompany those hired by the U.N., and that they had wanted more and more maintenance to be performed on a ship that appears to be unsalvageable. Alseraji claimed that the U.N. had reneged on several promises, and had “not been transparent.”

Around the time that the most recent set of talks was cancelled, one of the clan’s leaders, Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, tweeted, in Arabic, “If, God forbid, an environmental catastrophe occurred with the explosion of the Safer, the world will stop not for a week, as it did in Suez, but will stop for a long time. And it will stop the navigation of Navy vessels and others. We hold the U.N. accountable.”

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