What is the FSO Safer?

The FSO Safer is a 47-year-old decaying, oil tanker containing 1.1 million barrels of oil off the Red Sea coast of Yemen, which has had no maintenance since 2015 after the Houthis took control of the area from the internationally recognised Yemeni government.

With its corroding single-hull structure, and an inert gas system used to mitigate the risk of flammable gases exploding no longer operational, it is extremely vulnerable to either sinking, breaking apart or blowing up, and could spill up to four times as much oil as the Exxon Valdez.

Originally brought to Yemen in 1986 as a converted Floating Storage and Offloading unit (FSO) to allow Yemen’s fledgling oil industry to export oil from the Marib region east of the capital Sana’a, the Safer (pronounced “Saffer”) is now a time bomb with the potential to cause massive humanitarian, environmental, economic and international trade problems.

The UN, along with other interested parties, has been trying for years - amidst a civil war - to resolve the issue. Early 2022 finally saw some concrete agreement between the Houthis and the Yemeni government on at least addressing the most immediate concern, that being getting the oil onto a more stable replacement vessel. However, to fund this the UN has had to reach out to the international community - including a crowdfunding campaign.

As of 30 April 2023:

  • A replacement vessel has been purchased by the UN (at high cost due to flow-on impacts of the Ukraine invasion by Russia) and is expected to arrive early May 2023.

  • The UN is still $US29 million short for the emergency phase of the operation.

  • An agreement has been completed with legendary salvors Smit Salvage to get the Safer ready and then extract the oil - they are on their way from Rotterdam - an operation which is expected to take two months once they arrive in Yemen.

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And this story still has a long way to go. The emergency operation is the immediate concern, but what will eventually happen to the oil, in the context of efforts to seek a permanent ceasefire and peace in war-torn Yemen is still very unclear.

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A UN campaign to save a rotting Yemeni oil tanker amidst a war.


L Brown

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