- For the first time in over five years, a team of experts has been allowed to board the FSO Safer, a decaying oil tanker anchored off the coast of Yemen disputed by both the Houthi rebels and the Yemeni Government. This ship caught in longstanding tensions between the two currently poses an economic, ecological and humanitarian threat to countries bordering the Red Sea.
- The Red Sea insecurity is exacerbated by unequal levels of wealth and development. This is exemplified by the ongoing conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
- There is a longstanding pattern of periods of cooperation between the Houthis, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, followed by a regression to violence; although the Houthis allowed the UN team to board the FSO Safer, the region is experiencing violence once again. The current retaliatory attacks can be expected to continue.
Recent Key Development:
On Sunday 12 July 2020, Houthi rebels allowed a United Nations (UN) team access to the FSO Safer; the first time the tanker has been examined since the group took control of the Yemeni port of Ras Isa, five years ago. The tanker is loaded with over 1.14 million barrels of crude oil and has been moored 60km north of the port of Ras Isa, in Hudaydah, for 4 – 5 years and, without maintenance, has gradually been decaying.
The tanker has been a major point of concern both regionally and internationally, with the UN releasing a statement earlier in June expressing its alarm at the growing likelihood that the tanker would rupture or sink, causing an environmental, humanitarian and economic crisis for Yemen and its neighbours bordering the Red Sea.
The Red Sea is one of the world’s primary shipping lanes and one of the only access points for food and aid supplies to reach Yemen, which continues to struggle through the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. According to experts, the resulting oil spill would have an unprecedented impact, compounding existing problems as well as forcing the closure of ports and desalination plants, which would deprive tens of millions of people access to clean drinking water.
According to the UN team that bordered the FSO Safer, a temporary solution has been implemented to keep the tanker afloat. Both the Yemeni Government and the Houthi rebel group are placing a claim on the USD 40 million worth of oil that was recovered however, escalating tensions between the two.
The Houthi’s in Yemen
Historically, the relationship between the Yemeni Government and the Houthi’s has been characterized by protracted conflict. The Houthis, which are an armed rebel faction that has been active in the northern region of Yemen since 1992, and which represents a large portion of the Shia population, were outwardly opposed to the previous government, run by President Ali Abdullah Saleh. After Saleh was overthrown in the 2011 Arab Spring, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), spearheaded by Saudi Arabia, pushed for the federalization of Yemen. This subsequently reignited tensions with the Houthis, resulting in the Houthi military occupation of the capital city of Sadaa, along with much of the north, by 2014, and the onset of a five-year civil war.
The relationship between the Houthi rebels and the Yemeni Government has since decreased in severity, with moments of cooperation between both sides, such as the recent allowance of a UN team to board the FSO Safer. The peace is not consistent however, given that, in addition to localised grievances, the situation is also determined by regional politics.
The Houthis are backed by Iran, partly due to their identification as a Shia group, but also because both are opposed to Saudi Arabia. This means that the Saudi Arabian Government, and consequently the GCC, are invested in eradicating the Houthi rebellion.
A major contributing factor to regional insecurity, particularly tensions between Saudi Arabia and countries like Iran, is that the profits made by the former far outstrip those made by other Red Sea countries. This results in disproportionate levels of development within the region, which compounds existing tensions and magnifies the security threat, as evidenced by the Iranian backing of Houthi rebels.
Additionally, ongoing instability throughout the region, such as the aforementioned humanitarian crisis in Yemen, not only provides opportunity for terrorist groups and criminals but also makes it easier for them to survive and avoid detection.
As mentioned, the Houthis allowing the UN team to access the FSO Safer and avert a potential crisis is a positive development in the ongoing conflict between the rebel group and the government. Like many such moments before it, however, it is unlikely to lead to any radical changes in the existing relationship between the actors involved; in May of 2019, the Houthis began to withdraw from the port of Hudaydah as part of a unilateral peace agreement struck with the UN. At the same time, however, fighting escalated in other parts of the country and the Houthis retook the port again at a later date. This pattern is evident also in the case of the FSO Safer; although the Houthis allowed ‘outsiders’ access to the tanker for the first time in five years, they have demanded ownership of the 1.14 million barrels of crude oil that was stored onboard, increasing tensions between the Houthis and the Yemeni Government, which also claimed the oil.
Crude Oil Barrels
The tumultuous pattern of cooperation, followed by conflict, has not since changed. On Wednesday 22 July, Houthis fired ballistic missiles on the city of Marib, injuring three children and one woman, in retaliation to a GCC attack on two Houthi ships. The Yemeni government has called on the United Nations to place pressure on Iran, condemning the attack as an act of terror and a war crime. Such attacks can be expected to continue in both the near and long term.
On a wider scale, it is unlikely we will see the influence and role of the Houthi rebels decrease. Despite possessing the resources with which to combat the Houthis, Saudi Arabia has had minimal success in doing so. However, although the rebels present a strong opposing force, effectively adhering to guerrilla-style tactics and benefiting from being ideologically unified, they are unlikely to expand their reach into more of Yemen and beyond the border in Saudi Arabia as long as Saudi Arabia, the GCC, and other bodies, such as the UN, continue to be involved. Therefore, whilst we may witness either side gain an advantage at different times, the conflict is unlikely to change radically in the near future.