Nautica yemen
A picture taken on July 17, 2023, shows the UN-owned Nautica vessel off the coast of Yemen's contested western port of Hodeida. Image Credit: AFP

Aboard Nautica, Yemen: The United Nations on Monday handed over a vessel that will take on board oil from a decaying tanker in the Red Sea off war-torn Yemen, an operation aimed at averting an environmental catastrophe.

The handover ceremony took place aboard the Nautica, which is being renamed the Yemen, in the presence of the country’s Houthi authorities who control the capital Sanaa.

In the coming days, an operation is expected to begin pumping 1.14 million barrels of crude oil to the Nautica from the FSO Safer, a rusting 47-year-old ship that the UN describes as a “ticking time bomb”.

The UN-owned ship arrived off Yemen on Sunday.

Monday’s ceremony highlighted close cooperation between the UN and the Houthis, who since 2015 have been fighting a Saudi-led coalition backing the internationally recognised government based in the southern Yemeni city of Aden.

The UN had been hoping for a low-key event, but the Houthis invited high-ranking officials from various ministries as well as more than 20 local journalists to board the new ship.

As Houthi officials looked on, David Gressly, the UN resident coordinator for Yemen, signed the handover papers along with Edrees Al Shami, the Houthi-appointed executive general manager of SEPOC, the Yemeni oil and gas company.

Gressly said the ship transfer had been organised with the participation of all parties to Yemen’s conflict and that it now belonged to “the people of Yemen”.

However, Houthi officials have said it will fall under their control.

“The handover is to the Safer company (SEPOC) which is located in Sanaa. So Safer in Sanaa is authorised to receive the tanker,” the Houthis’ transportation minister, Abdulwahab al-Dhura, told AFP.

The internationally recognised government in Aden does not acknowledge Shami’s authority and has named its own executive general manager of SEPOC.

Oil in dispute

The Nautica, purchased by the UN in March, is smaller than the Safer, with a clean, rust-free red-and-blue hull.

It is expected to moor alongside the Safer so that pumping can begin by the end of this week.

Assuming the transfer operation is a success, the oil will stay on the Nautica for the foreseeable future.

Ownership of the oil is disputed by Yemen’s warring factions.

The Houthis have previously said they want to sell it and use the revenue to cover their employees’ salaries.

They have also called for the completion of onshore storage facilities where the crude could potentially go.

Gressly told AFP that progress on the Safer operation raises optimism for a political resolution to Yemen’s brutal war.

“It’s not easy to predict the future here, of course, but the fact that everybody came together among the parties in conflict... could potentially give a bit of a boost to the process,” he said.

Fighting has dropped off considerably since a truce went into effect in April 2022, though it officially expired six months later.

In April, a Saudi delegation led by Mohammed Al Jaber, the kingdom’s ambassador to Yemen, travelled to Sanaa for direct talks with the Houthis, fuelling hopes for a negotiated settlement.

Hussein Al Ezzi, the Houthis’ deputy foreign minister, told AFP on Monday that they would be open to further discussions, though he cast doubt on the possibility of an imminent breakthrough.

“Talks are always a positive thing, and we are open to any efforts and negotiations with any party, especially Saudi Arabia, which is the head of coalition,” he said.

“Always the environment of any negotiations is positive, but the outcomes are limited.”