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International positions towards Iran-backed Houthis shifting

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

Published: Updated:

The FSO Safer is a rusting oil tanker abandoned seven kilometers off the Yemeni coast and containing enough oil to cause a major global environmental disaster. If the dilapidated vessel explodes or sinks, the catastrophe would be four times greater than that of the Exxon Valdez tanker leak in 1989, and it would destroy most of the northern Yemeni coastline.

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The Safer helped reveal the true colors of the religious extremist Houthis, whose defenders abroad tried to portray them as a nationalist movement. Many professionals in international law and environmental issues have come to realize that like Yemen, the rusting ship is nothing but a hostage to a group that is using it to blackmail the international community, just like al-Qaeda, ISIS, Hezbollah, and other extremist religious organizations do in the region.

Therefore, there have been some shifts of opinion recently, albeit slow ones, as a result of the Houthis' rejections for a cease-fire and negotiations, and their unwillingness to open air and sea ports. Some human rights and environmental organizations are gradually and tangibly changing their positions on Yemen.

The Houthis rejected all proposed solutions to the imminent danger posed by the Safer, including repairing the tanker so that its cargo of one million barrels of oil would not explode or leak.

In a Time magazine article on the tanker crisis, Ian Ralby, a globally recognized expert in maritime law and security, said, “Even if the Houthis signed their agreements in blood, their track record shows that they will renege on that agreement before anything happens.” Ralby argues that the UN Security Council should authorize a military-backed response to prevent a disaster that is waiting to happen.

Several major civil society organizations have long defended the Houthis despite their atrocious crimes and daily displays of violence in the areas under their control such as Sanaa. These organizations continued to defend the Houthis and depict them as a national liberation movement and as the victims of a vicious war. In reality, the armed Houthi militia seized power by force and destroyed a newly founded political regime after the 2011 revolution, which the UN and the West were helping to establish on the ruins of the previous regime. The past five years are sufficient to judge the Houthis.

FSO Safer, the tanker holding 1.1 million barrels of crude oil in the Red Sea off Yemen. (Twitter)
FSO Safer, the tanker holding 1.1 million barrels of crude oil in the Red Sea off Yemen. (Twitter)

A former Safer manager said that the intentions of the Houthis were obvious from the beginning. According to him, back in 2015 when the Houthi militia took over the Yemeni capital, they were keen to learn about how to export oil from the facility. “They wanted to get information about how we sell the cargo, how we produce, where the money is going, how much we sell for,” the former manager said.

When international mediators warned the Houthis about the poor conditions of the unmaintained tanker and its imminent environmental danger, the militia turned the crisis into extortion. In every exchange with them, the Houthis used the vessel as a bargaining chip and wanted something in exchange for repairing it or assessing its conditions. After repeated requests, met with the Houthis’ delays, intransigence, and refusal to repair the oil tanker, the mediators realized that the Houthi militia considers the vessel a cash cow. The Houthis threaten to either let the Safer sink or detonate it to destroy the entire marine area like Saddam did in 1991 when he set fire to Kuwait’s oil wells.

The Safer crisis revealed the mistakes of international organizations in their political exchanges with, and media coverage of, the Houthis. These organizations tolerated the Houthis on the grounds of opposing the war in Yemen without regard to the force majeure behind the war. The majority of Yemenis, regardless of their differences, are unanimous against this group that belongs to the Dark Ages.

The Safer has enough oil to wipe out marine life and destroy its environment. Cleaning up the mess would take years to come and would cost about 20 billion US dollars.

To achieve a political solution, international organizations, and particularly civil society ones, must stop justifying the Houthis’ dangerous actions.

This article was originally published in, and translated from, Pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.