The Ticking Time Bomb FSO SAFER – An Imminent but Preventable Environmental Disaster

By LtCol Michael von Normann, German Army, US Central Command: Strategy Plans and Policy Directorate; Combined Strategic Analysis Group, Middle East Branch
27 Aug 2020


The aging oil tanker FSO SAFER is a “ticking time bomb,” abandoned and sitting off the coast of Yemen since 2015. Without action from the international community, there is potential for an environmental, economic, and humanitarian disaster. Recommendations on courses of action are offered for the US and CENTCOM.

Key Points:

  • A major FSO SAFER oil spill will overshadow other Yemen challenges and harm millions of lives and livelihoods likely for decades.
  • The Houthis use FSO SAFER as a bargaining chip but must fully understand the risks. A spill will cause an ecological disaster for which the world will forever hold the Houthis responsible.
  • A Red Sea environmental disaster will likely drive increased riparian population migration inland, and severely increase DPs and IDPs throughout the region.
  • The UN and international community must act quickly to avert an environmental catastrophe which will have colossal economic, political, and societal spillover effects far beyond the Arabian Peninsula.


Since 2015, aging oil tanker FSO SAFER (“SAFER” or the “Vessel”) has sat rotting off the Yemeni coast – less than 4 miles off Ras Issa port, 35 miles north of Hodeida. Hodeida is the center of Houthi-controlled northwestern Yemen. On August 4, a massive and devastating 2700-ton ammonium nitrate blast in Beirut shocked the world. Shortly after, Yemenis reminded the world that the decaying floating storage vessel, FSO SAFER, could cause a wide-spread disaster around the Arabian Peninsula. Should the FSO SAFER rupture from exploding storage tank gases or have structural failure, the resulting 160-million-liter Red Sea crude oil spill (four times the 1989 EXXON VALDEZ oil spill) will negatively impact tens of millions of people. With just a blink of an eye, the world will witness a never before seen disaster. The resulting spill will surely cause an environmental disaster with severe ecological, economic, infrastructure, political, and humanitarian impact for decades to come, and far beyond Yemeni waters. World powers have largely ignored this looming catastrophe for more than five years, but must now address the crisis with the sheer priority it requires.

Read the complete paper here.

The opinions and conclusions expressed herein are those of a number of international officers within the Combined Strategic Analysis Group (CSAG) and do not necessarily reflect the views of United States Central Command, not of the nations represented within the CSAG or any other governmental agency.