How ‘a monumental catastrophe’ was averted with offloading of Safer near Yemen’s Red Sea coast

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The FSO Safer held more than 1.14 million barrels of oil — four times as much as was spilled in the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster off Alaska — is a "ticking time bomb no more. Now that most of the oil has been transferred, the decaying vessel will be towed to a “green scrapping yard.” (AFP)
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The support vessel Ndeavor en route to the Red Sea after UNDP and Boskalis signed the contract for the company's subsidiary SMIT Salvage to transfer 1.1 million barrels of oil from the decaying FSO Safer to a replacement vessel. (Supplied)
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Updated 13 August 2023
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How ‘a monumental catastrophe’ was averted with offloading of Safer near Yemen’s Red Sea coast

  • Decaying oil-storage vessel moored in the Red Sea posed massive environmental and humanitarian threat
  • First phase of operation succeeds in removing most of the 1.14 million barrels of crude oil held by the Safer

DUBAI: The news that the threat of a massive oil spill in the Red Sea has receded with the transfer of more than a million barrels of oil from the FSO Safer, a dilapidated storage vessel lying off the coast of Yemen, has come as a huge relief for nearby countries, UN officials and environmentalists.

After months of on-site preparatory work, the $143 million operation got underway at the end of July, with the goal of defusing what UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had described as “the world’s largest ticking time bomb.”




A team of workers hired by the United Nations started transferring oil from the rusting super-tanker FSO Safer off war-torn Yemen on July 25. (AFP/File)

An international team siphoned the crude out of the Safer to another vessel — the Nautica, later renamed the Yemen — bought by the UN for the salvage mission.

In a statement on Friday, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs reiterated the Kingdom’s appreciation for the efforts of Guterres and the UN working team who “worked to harness all efforts to end the problem of the Safer tanker.”

Saudi Arabia was one of the first countries to provide financial grants for the offloading operation through donations via the King Salman Center for Relief and Humanitarian Aid.

The Saudi foreign ministry also thanked the Command of the Coalition to Support Legitimacy in Yemen for “facilitating the operational plan process until the ... completion of the unloading of the floating tanker Safer.”


Had the condition of the Safer been allowed to deteriorate further, massive quantities of oil could have spilled into the Red Sea, causing incalculable environmental and economic damage.

“Thank God, it is over,” Walid Khadduri, an oil analyst and former editor-in-chief of the Middle East Economic Survey, told Arab News from Beirut. “The UN working team prevented a veritable catastrophe from happening. It could have been a major one.”

The Red Sea and its “distinct ecosystem,” with coral reefs and seagrass beds, would have been most at risk, he said.

“The environment would have been the hardest hit by an oil spill, followed by maritime traffic.” 




Anticipating the possibility of a spill in the course of the oil transfer operation, the United Nations traineda local team in Hodeidah on the use of floating booms (temporary barrier) to protect the coast. (AFP/file photo)

Now that most of the oil has been transferred from the Safer, saving Red Sea ecosystems and fishing communities up and down the Yemen coast from potential disaster, a UN-purchased vessel will tow the Safer to a “green scrapping yard.”

Achim Steiner, administrator of the UN’s Development Program, described the offloading operation as “one of the most significant preventative actions taken in recent years.”

He said: “Some of you have written and called the FSO Safer a ticking time bomb. I think it is fair to say that as of today, that ticking is no longer an immediate threat.”

The Safer, a 47-year-old floating oil storage vessel, was moored in the Red Sea, north of the Yemeni ports of Hodeidah and Ras Issa — a strategic area controlled by the Houthi militia.

It was built in the 1970s and later sold to the Yemeni government to hold up to 3 million barrels of crude oil pumped from the fields of Marib, a province in eastern Yemen.

The vessel was 1,181 feet long with 34 storage tanks, and held more than 1.14 million barrels of oil before the UN operation began — four times as much as was spilled in the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster off Alaska, one of the world’s worst ecological crises, according to the UN.

Minimal maintenance since Yemen’s civil war began in 2015 left the Safer vulnerable to corrosion and increased the risk of leaks.


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The removal of oil was the culmination of almost two years of political groundwork, fundraising and project development.

Donations to fund the offloading operation from 23 UN member states, the EU, the private sector and public groups have exceeded $121 million, but a further $20 million is needed to scrap the Safer and remove any remaining ecological threats to the Red Sea.

Hasan Selim Ozertem, a security and energy analyst, described the UN operation as a “critical intervention to prevent an ecological disaster,” adding that “it is not possible to totally eliminate the risk of oil spill as witnessed from so many disasters in the past.”




In this photo supplied by international dredging and heavylift company Boskalis, workers are shown pumping oil from from the FSO Safer to a replacement tanker in July 2023. (Boskalis photo)

He told Arab News from Ankara that it is important to note that the international community, represented by the UNDP, supported the oil removal operation.

“This experience holds lessons on how to avert such situations in the future. Considering how complicated the Yemen situation is, no mission should be treated as impossible.

“Be it the Syrian war or the Israel-Palestine conflict, every crisis requires political will on the part of regional actors to reach a solution. The UN by itself does not have the necessary carrots and sticks to impose solutions; it can only facilitate the process.”

FASTFACTS

FSO Safer was moored off coast of Yemen with minimal maintenance.

Vessel held 4x as much oil as was spilled in 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster.

Saudi Arabia provided financial grants for the offloading operation.

In comments to the media on Friday, David Gressly, the UN’s resident coordinator in Yemen, highlighted that the two captains involved in the operation on board the Safer were invited to travel from Aden to take part in the project, which he described as “an indication of the importance of going beyond the day-to-day concerns that exist in the civil war that continues here.”

He said the success of the salvage mission, at a regional level, has lifted the spirits of the Yemeni people, and expressed hope that the ability of adversaries to work together to address one critical problem might lay the groundwork for broader cooperation and peace negotiations.




In this photo supplied by international dredging and heavylift company Boskalis, workers are shown pumping oil from from the FSO Safer to a replacement tanker in July 2023. (Boskalis photo)

The success of the offloading operation serves as a testament to the power of diplomacy, patience and transparency in efforts to foster collaboration in even the most challenging of situations, he added.

“It’s a good Friday,” Gressly told Arab News. “We feel good about what we’ve seen today. It’s nice to see something advancing as it did here. In terms of the larger political dialogue, of course, it won’t contribute directly to that. But I have to say (it) does create a bit of hope for people that there is a way forward.

“And, then, while the parties are adversaries, they did find a way to set aside those differences long enough to deal with this particular problem. And that can create, I think, conditions more conducive for negotiations.

“And also, I think the fact that the (memorandum of understanding) that was signed back in March last year, that so far has been adhered to by Sana’a. is a good sign that you can have a successful negotiation in this context.

“That does not guarantee it but it does create a sense of hope that may not have been there before. And I hope those that are in a position to do so can take advantage of whatever momentum this is creating to go forth.”

Likewise, UNDP’s Steiner said that in the broader context of the humanitarian situation in Yemen, the success of the Safer operation offers “a glimpse of hope,” especially amid wider shifts in the dynamics of the region and within Yemen itself.




Staff of a vessel in charge of unloading oil from the decaying vessel FSO Safer are pictured off the coast of Ras Issa, Yemen. (AFP)

“UNDP, which works in virtually all parts of the country, has estimated that Yemen over the last eight years has lost some 20 to 22 years of its development,” he told Arab News. “So, I think the context within which this operation had to be mounted was quite unique.

“But I think one can at least speculate that the ability of two sides to this conflict — who lack trust in each other, who are even very skeptical toward international community — to find it within themselves, and ultimately with a very strong sense of support from the public, that this was an operation that was of benefit to every citizen, and therefore required exceptional and unusual measures.

“And the story of how we got here might actually give some hope to those who believe that there is more that can be achieved in the next few months.”




After the remaining oil on board the FSO Safer is removed, the decaying vessel will be towed to a scrapyard, an operation expected to be completed in up to 10 days. (AFP photo/File)

Although the bulk of the oil has been removed from the Safer, the offloading operation is not yet complete; there is a small amount of viscous oil remains on board and the vessel could still break apart.

“The residual oil on the Safer is mixed with sediment and can’t be pumped out at this point,” Gressly said. “It will be removed during the final cleaning.”

The second and final phase of the operation, stripping and cleaning the Safer and preparing it for towing and scrapping, is expected to take between a week and 10 days to complete.

Ephrem Kossaify contributed to the report from New York City

 


More than one in four Syrians ‘extremely poor’: World Bank

Updated 55 min 52 sec ago
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More than one in four Syrians ‘extremely poor’: World Bank

  • 27 percent of Syrians — about 5.7 million individuals — live in extreme poverty
  • “Continued funding shortfalls and limited access to humanitarian assistance” have further strained poor Syrians, the World Bank said

BEIRUT: More than a quarter of Syrians live in extreme poverty, the World Bank said Saturday, 13 years into a devastating civil war that has battered the economy and impoverished millions.
The World Bank published two new reports on Syria, which found that “27 percent of Syrians — about 5.7 million individuals — live in extreme poverty.”
“Extreme poverty, while virtually non-existent before the conflict, affected more than one in four Syrians in 2022” and might have further deteriorated after a deadly earthquake last year, one of the reports said.
The quake killed about 6,000 people in the country.
According to the United Nations, about 90 percent of Syrians live in poverty, while it previously estimated that around 2 million lived in extreme poverty after more than a decade of war.
The report cited neighbor Lebanon’s economic meltdown in late 2019, the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, as having eroded the welfare of Syrian households in recent years.
The civil war in Syria has also ravaged the economy, infrastructure and industry, while Western sanctions have added to the country’s woes.
“Continued funding shortfalls and limited access to humanitarian assistance” have further strained poor Syrians, already coping with “soaring prices, reduced access to essential services and rising unemployment,” the World Bank said.
The UN told AFP previously that its humanitarian response plan for Syria for 2024 requires more than $4 billion but that it is only six percent funded.
The international community is set to meet in Brussels Monday to try and muster funds for Syria at a yearly pledging conference.
A lack of opportunities and dwindling aid has pushed many Syrians to rely on money sent from relatives abroad to survive, with the World Bank estimating that “in 2022, the total value of remittances received by Syrian households reached about $1.05 billion.”
Syria’s estimated GDP stood at around $6.2 billion in 2023.
Syria’s “real GDP is projected to contract by 1.5 percent in 2024, extending the 1.2 percent decline in 2023,” the report said.
“Inflation is anticipated to remain high in 2024 due to the pass-through effects of currency depreciation, along with persistent shortages and potential further subsidy cuts (for) food and fuel,” it said.
Syria’s war has killed more than half a million people and displaced millions more since it erupted in 2011 after Damascus cracked down on anti-government protests.


Israel official says ‘intention’ to renew Gaza talks ‘this week’

Updated 49 min 28 sec ago
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Israel official says ‘intention’ to renew Gaza talks ‘this week’

  • “There is an intention to renew the talks this week and there is an agreement,” said the official
  • The official did not elaborate on the agreement

JERUSALEM: An Israeli official said Saturday the government had an “intention” to renew “this week” talks aimed at reaching a hostage release deal in Gaza, after a meeting in Paris between US and Israeli officials.
“There is an intention to renew the talks this week and there is an agreement,” the official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
The Israeli official did not elaborate on the agreement, but Israeli media reported that Mossad chief David Barnea had agreed during meetings in Paris with mediators CIA Director Bill Burns and Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani on a new framework for the stalled negotiations.
Top US diplomat Antony Blinken also spoke with Israeli war cabinet minister Benny Gantz about new efforts to achieve a ceasefire and reopen the Rafah border crossing, Washington said.
Talks aimed at reaching a hostage release and truce deal in the Gaza Strip ground to a halt this month after Israel launched a military operation in the territory’s far-southern city of Rafah.
The Gaza war broke out after Hamas’s October 7 attack resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.
Militants also took 252 hostages, 121 of whom remain in Gaza, including 37 the army says are dead.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 35,903 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to data from the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.


Yemen’s Houthis postpone release of 100 prisoners belonging to government forces

Updated 25 May 2024
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Yemen’s Houthis postpone release of 100 prisoners belonging to government forces

  • The Houthis, an Iran-aligned movement that controls part of the country, last released prisoners in April 2023
  • Yemen has been embroiled in years of civil war that has killed tens of thousands of people and left millions hungry

CAIRO: Yemen’s Houthis said they had postponed the release of around 100 prisoners belonging to government forces that had previously been announced to take place on Saturday.
A Houthi official said that the delay was because of “technical reasons,” adding the release would take place at another time.
The head of the Houthi Prisoner Affairs Committee, Abdul Qader Al-Murtada, said on Friday that the group would release more than 100 prisoners in what he called “a unilateral humanitarian initiative.”
The Houthis, an Iran-aligned movement that controls part of the country, last released prisoners in April 2023 in an exchange of 250 Houthis for 70 government forces.
Yemen has been embroiled in years of civil war that has killed tens of thousands of people and left millions hungry.
The Houthis are the de facto authorities in northern Yemen, while the internationally recognized government is represented by the Political Leadership Council, which took over power from Yemen’s president-in-exile.


Spain demands Israel comply with UN court ruling on Rafah, Britain criticizes order

Updated 25 May 2024
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Spain demands Israel comply with UN court ruling on Rafah, Britain criticizes order

  • Spanish government: Ruling by the International Court of Justice is legally binding
  • British government says ruling would strengthen Palestinian Islamist group Hamas

MADRID/LONDON: The Spanish government demanded on Saturday that Israel comply with an order by the top UN court to immediately stop its bombardment and ground assault on the Gazan city of Rafah.
It stressed that the ruling on Friday by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) was legally binding.
“The precautionary measures set out by the ICJ, including that Israel should cease its military offensive in Rafah, are compulsory. Israel must comply with them,” Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares wrote on X.
“The same goes for a ceasefire, the release of the hostages and access for humanitarian aid (to Gaza),” he said.
“The suffering of the people of Gaza and the violence must end.”
The British government, meanwhile, has criticized the World Court order, saying the ruling would strengthen Palestinian Islamist group Hamas.
“The reason there isn’t a pause in the fighting is because Hamas turned down a very generous hostage deal from Israel. The intervention of these courts — including the ICJ today — will strengthen the view of Hamas that they can hold on to hostages and stay in Gaza,” a UK foreign ministry spokesperson said late on Friday.
“And if that happens there won’t be either peace, or a two-state solution.”
In a case brought by South Africa alleging the Israeli assault on Gaza amounts to “genocide,” the ICJ ordered Israel on Friday to “immediately halt” the ground and air offensive in Rafah.
The operations began on May 7 despite international fears for the safety of the 1.4 million civilians trapped in the city.
The Hague-based ICJ, whose orders are legally binding but lack direct enforcement mechanisms, also ruled that Israel must keep open the key Rafah crossing with Egypt to allow “unhindered” humanitarian aid into Gaza.
And it urged the “unconditional” release of hostages taken by Hamas fighters during their October 7 attack in Israel.
Israel responded on Saturday by bombing Rafah and other parts of the densely populated Gaza Strip.
Spain is one of the European countries to have been most critical of Israel over the war in Gaza.
On Wednesday, Spain, Ireland and Norway said their governments would recognize a Palestinian state from next week.
Israel summoned their envoys to “reprimand” them for the decision and on Friday said it would ban Spain’s consulate in Jerusalem from helping Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.
The war in Gaza began after Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack, which resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.
Some 252 people were taken hostage, 121 of whom remain in Gaza, including 37 the Israeli army says are dead.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 35,857 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to data from the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.


Israeli strike kills two Hezbollah fighters in Syria: monitor

Updated 25 May 2024
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Israeli strike kills two Hezbollah fighters in Syria: monitor

  • It was the third strike against Hezbollah targets in Syria in about a week

BEIRUT: An Israeli drone strike in central Syria killed two fighters from Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah movement on Saturday, a war monitor said.
“An Israeli drone fired two missiles at a Hezbollah car and truck near the town of Qusayr in Homs province, as they were on their way to Al-Dabaa military airport, killing at least two Hezbollah fighters and wounding others,” said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
It was the third strike against Hezbollah targets in Syria in about a week.
On Monday, Israeli strikes in the Qusayr area, which is close to the Lebanese border, killed eight pro-Iranian fighters, said Observatory, a Britain-based monitor with a network of sources in Syria.
At least one Hezbollah fighter was among those killed, a source from Hezbollah told AFP at the time.
Another strike, on May 18, targeted “a Hezbollah commander and his companion,” the Observatory said. It did not report any casualties.
Israel rarely comments on individual strikes in Syria but has repeatedly said it will not allow its arch-enemy Iran to expand its presence there.
Israel has carried out hundreds of strikes in Syria since the outbreak of the civil war in its northern neighbor, mainly targeting army positions and Iran-backed fighters including from Hezbollah.
The strikes have increased since Israel’s war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip began on October 7, when the Iran-backed Palestinian militant group launched an unprecedented attack against Israel.
Syria’s war has killed more than half a million people and displaced millions more since it erupted in 2011 after Damascus cracked down on anti-government protests.