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UN Warns Yemeni Tanker Spill Would Be “Four Times Worse Than Exxon Valdez”

Two activists in Whitehall opposite 10 Downing Street with "Hands off Yemen" placards. Date 22 June 2018, 18:00 Source: Hands Off Yemen Author: Alisdare Hickson from Canterbury, United Kingdom

Yemen is being devastated by brutal war and COVID. They do NOT need an oil spill poisoning their coasts on top of everything else.

A degenerating Yemeni oil tanker sitting miles off the coast of the country could spark an environmental catastrophe four times worse than the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, the United Nations warned earlier this month.

U.N. action to address the deteriorating FSO Safer, which has been nearly unattended for half a decade, has been stalled by a horrific war that Human Rights Watch says has caused the “world’s largest humanitarian crisis”. Beyond the direct impact of the conflict, Yemen has been hit with a severe Covid-19 outbreak and fourteen million people in the country are at risk of famine, conditions that would only worsen if the tanker spills.

“The Safer is carrying 1.1 million barrels of oil. That’s about four times as much oil as was discharged in the Exxon Valdez disaster – a spill the world still talks about thirty years later,” U.N. aid chief Mark Lowcock told the Security Council in May. “It is impossible to say how long it might hold,” warned Lowcock, who was been alerting the Council about the Yemeni tanker for over a year.

A 2019 report published by the Atlantic Council warns that a spill from the Yemeni tanker would not only be an environmental and humanitarian catastrophe, but that it would likely have a “tangible impact” on the world economy and cause a “downward spiral” in the already war-town region.

The Houthis agreed to a U.N. technical assessment of the tanker earlier this month, but Lowcock said the group has given similar commitments before rescinding them. The Houthis have asked for preconditions to be met before granting entry to the tanker while the Security Council has called for unconditional U.N. access, according to Middle East Monitor.

In a 2019 article for Mintpress News, Yemeni journalist Ahmed Abdulkareem broke down the central issue impeding action on the decrepit Yemeni tanker:

“The Houthis want guarantees that the revenue from the oil aboard the tanker — estimated at more than $70 million, as noted above — will go to pay the salaries of Yemen’s public-sector employees and be used to restore power to the province of Hodeida.

The Coalition wants the revenue to be kept by Coalition countries, much as the oil revenues from Yemen’s southern regions where Saudi Arabia and the UAE are extracting oil from Shabwa, Balahaf and Hadramout and transferring the revenues to the National Bank in Saudi Arabia.”

In July 15th statements to the Security Council sent to Citizen Truth by a U.N. spokesperson, UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock described the dire situation:

“Yemen imports nearly everything, and most imports come through Hudaydah or the port at nearby Saleef. Losing either of these ports for an extended period would destabilize critical commercial and aid imports of food and other essential commodities. That has the potential to inflict terrible additional suffering on millions of Yemenis – including people who are already going hungry in Sana’a, Sa’ada, Ibb and other places located away from coastal areas.

This would also deliver another severe blow to Yemen’s already embattled economy. The resulting disruption would substantially accelerate recent trends that are already – once again – pushing the country towards famine. International maritime routes and neighboring states would also be affected.”

What Is Behind The War In Yemen?

The Yemeni civil war is commonly mischaracterized as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with the Houthis allegedly serving Iran’s ambitions for regional hegemony in the Middle East. President Trump has cited containment of Iran as one of his reasons for vetoing bipartisan legislation to limit U.S. support for the war, in addition to lucrative arms deals with the Saudi kingdom.

But as journalist Ben Norton notes, this narrative does not hold up under scrutiny:

“Even the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace—which gets significant funding from the US and British governments—has published research acknowledging that ‘Iranian support for the Houthis has been marginal and does not shape their decisionmaking as much as local alliances and conflict dynamics do,’ and that ‘claims of Iran’s influence over the Houthis have been overblown.’”

State Department emails leaked by Wikileaks revealed the U.S.’s long-held knowledge that Houthis “obtain their weapons from the Yemeni black market”, with a senior Yemeni intelligence officer asserting: “The Iranians are not arming the Houthis. The weapons they use are Yemeni,” with another senior official claiming that the anti-Houthi military “covers up its failures by saying that the weapons [of the Houthis] come from Iran.”

In reality, the U.S.-backed Saudi coalition has waged a war of aggression against Yemen’s Houthi movement since 2015, in order to reinstall Saudi-allied leader Abdrabbu Mansour Hadi, who fled to the Saudi kingdom after Houthis seized control in 2014.

Wikileaks’ Yemen Files, a collection of more than 500 documents from the U.S. embassy in Sana’a from 2009-2015, summarized some of the immediate strategic motivations for the Saudi coalition’s savage bombing campaign:

Yemen is of significant strategic interest as Yemen controls a narrow choke-point to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal through which 11% of the world’s petroleum passes each day. In addition, Yemen borders Saudi Arabia (to the north) and Oman (to the east) and has access to the Arabian Sea, through which another 20% of the world’s petroleum passes from the Strait of Hormuz (including the oil of Saudi Arabia and Iran). Saudi Arabia seeks to control a port in Yemen to avoid the potential constriction of its oil shipments by by Iran along the Strait of Hormuz or by countries which can control its other oil shipment path along the Red Sea.

Further, a Saudi defeat in Yemen would likely result in the end of unpopular privatization and austerity reforms imposed in the country in the 1990s at the behest of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Supported by Saudi Arabia and the United States, these policies gave elites greater control of Yemen’s industries and cut public spending on health, housing, education, utilities, and pensions, contributing to the civil unrest of the Arab Spring and 2015 uprising.

Beyond granting Yemenis more control over their natural resources, a Houthi victory could also weaken the authoritarian Saudi regime by providing an example of a more democratic system on its southern border.

U.S. support for the Saudi coalition is also driven by the tremendous lobbying presence of Saudi Arabia and the domestic arms industry in Washington.

One direct example of the arms industry’s influence over the U.S.’ Yemen policy can be seen in a 2018 Wall Street Journal report revealing that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was convinced to maintain support for the Saudi campaign in Yemen for the sake of a $2 billion arms deal between the Saudis and U.S. defense contractor Raytheon. The State Department’s legislative affairs staff, who influenced Pompeo’s decision, is led by Assistant Secretary of State Charles Faulkner, a former Raytheon lobbyist. Notably, Mark Esper, the current head of the Pentagon, was Raytheon’s top lobbyist for seven years.

Despite data from the Yemen Data Project indicating that nearly a third of all Gulf coalition air raids on Yemen have hit civilian targets, the U.S. and U.K. governments have refused to curtail arm sales to the Saudi coalition.

“It’s not just hospitals and medical facilities you have to take into account. It’s the bombing of water and electricity infrastructure, the impact on food supply lines with food storage facilities and crucial road bridges being hit too,” the Yemen Data Project’s Iona Craig told the Independent.

Further putting U.S. support for the Saudi regime into question is the fact that Saudi Arabia has armed Al Qaeda-linked factions with American-made weapons. As explained in a leaked 2014 email from Hillary Clinton, the former Secretary of State knew that Saudi Arabia and Qatar were “providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region”, yet the Obama administration continued to broker record arms sales with the theocratic dictatorship.

Wikileaks’ Yemen Files reveal that the U.S. was arming, training, and funding Yemeni forces years before the war, despite Congress never authorizing U.S. involvement in the conflict.

“Although the United States government has provided most of the bombs and is deeply involved in the conduct of the war itself reportage on the war in English is conspicuously rare,” said Wikileaks’ Julian Assange in 2016.

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Peter Castagno

Peter Castagno is a staff writer and assistant editor at Citizen Truth.

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