This handout satellite image obtained courtesy of Maxar Technologies on July 19, 2020, shows the FSO Safer oil tanker off the port of Ras Isa. Photo: AFP/Maxar Technologies

A marooned supertanker loaded with more than 1 million barrels of crude oil has become the center of a high-stakes game of chicken playing out between Yemen’s Houthi rebels and the Saudi monarchy.

The FSO Safer is deteriorating “daily” with flammable gases building up inside, according to the United Nations. Without immediate repairs and a rapid transfer of the oil, the supertanker risks belching its contents into the Red Sea, decimating maritime ecosystems, shuttering Yemen’s most critical port and sabotaging Saudi Arabia’s water desalination plants.

“The Houthi authorities are recklessly delaying UN experts’ access to the deteriorating oil tanker that threatens to destroy entire ecosystems and demolish the livelihoods of millions of people already suffering from Yemen’s war,” said Human Rights Watch on Monday.

“The UN’s top experts are on standby to prevent the worst and should immediately be allowed on board the vessel,” the New York-based rights group added.

The Yemeni state-owned vessel has been stranded within Yemen’s territorial waters since 2015, the year Saudi Arabia and its allies launched a military offensive aimed at rolling back Houthi rebel gains and restoring the UN-recognized government to power.

The Iran-backed rebels have since been treating the crumbling FSO Safer and its contents as a “deterrent, like having a nuclear weapon,” a European diplomat told the Associated Press earlier this year.

The vessel is essentially a floating storage container, connected by pipeline to the oil-rich Marib governorate of Yemen. Marib is controlled by Saudi-backed coalition forces, and mediators have reportedly raised the prospect of finding a compromise in which proceeds from the sale of the stranded oil could be divided between the warring parties.

Map of tanker location off the coast of Yemen
Map of the Safer oil tanker location off the coast of Yemen. Graphic: HRW

The United Nations said seawater reached the engine compartment in May and has called on the warring parties to ensure the entry of experts who can carry out “initial light repairs” to buy time for a necessary offloading of the oil and eventual dismantling of the vessel.

Two scenarios are considered increasingly likely, according to the UN:

  1. Corrosion and lack of maintenance of the FSO unit for an extended period of time can lead to leakage of some of the oil into the sea.
  2. An explosion and a fire on board the FSO unit, caused by accidental ignition of gas accumulated in the cargo tanks, results in the catastrophic scenario with massive leakage of most or all of the oil into the sea.

Should a spill happen, it would be four times larger than the Exxon Valdez catastrophe off the coast of Alaska in 1989. The impact would be most severe in Yemen, half of whose population is living on the edge of famine, and whose fishermen rely on the Red Sea for livelihoods, and its people for sustenance.

Saudi Arabia, one of the top producers of desalinized water in the world, and which views the process as critical for its domestic water security, saw its first desalination plant forced closed by an oil slick in 1991 during the Gulf War.

Due to the ongoing conflict in Yemen, any clean-up efforts would be severely hampered, the UN emphasized, allowing the oil ample time to seep into nearby coastal lands and poison the food supply.

Alison T Meuse is the Asia Times Middle East editor and correspondent.