The Dutch ambassador to Yemen, Peter Derrek Hof, is working with the UN to help prevent an environmental disaster involving an old oil tanker. On May 10th, the UN is to stage a rare donor conference in a bid to raise the $80 million necessary to dismantle the FSO Safer in the port of Ras Isa. The success of these efforts, over the coming months, will depend on the willingness of Houthi rebels to cooperate. ‘As a neutral country in this matter the Netherlands has good relations with all the parties in Yemen.’
‘The biggest current humanitarian disaster’ and ‘potentially the largest oil leak in many years’ – Peter Derrek Hof has to reach for superlatives to characterise the situation in Yemen. For the past year and a half he has been the Dutch ambassador to the Middle Eastern country, though never in Yemen itself. Embassies in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a have been closed for years. The various parties to the conflict have made it necessary to open embassy offices outside the country. Diplomats works from Riyadh, Amman, Muscat and other locations in the region.
Recently Hof was finally able to visit Sana’a. The capital is in a part of the country controlled by Houthi rebels. ‘There are a few UN flights a week, which are purely humanitarian in nature.’
The UN hopes to raise 80 million dollars this week through a donor conference, which the Netherlands will be attending. The money is needed to offload more than 1.14 million barrels of oil from the old tanker.
Hof went to Yemen with a mission. Near the port of Ras Isa sits an old, rust-eaten tanker, FSO Safer, which holds over a million barrels of oil. There has been no maintenance on the tanker for years.
‘The machine room has already been flooded once. If the tanker sinks, explodes or starts to leak, around 140,000 tonnes of oil will flow into the Red Sea, with catastrophic consequences for people and for the environment.’ If this happens, it will wipe out various species of fish and coral reefs, and 126,000 Yemeni fishermen will lose their livelihood. The UN estimates that in the area around the Red Sea approximately 30 million people will be affected by a disaster of this scale.
Representatives of a Dutch company, which can transfer the oil to a safer tanker, accompanied Hof on his trip. They were not allowed to visit the tanker; it was only possible to view it from a distance. Talks are being held with a number of parties, including the Houthis, to secure permission for this salvage operation.
This sounds simpler than it is, says Ambassador Hof. ‘The UN is now putting the finishing touches on its plan, with input from us and others. Then we need to find the funds.’ This will cost 80 million dollars, which the UN hopes to raise this week through a donor conference, which the Netherlands will be attending.
The rusty tanker in Yemen is a political story. In 2015, when the war first broke out, the FSO Safer fell into the hands of the Houthis, the rebel groups now in charge in Yemen. As long as these Houthi rebels cannot offer permission or guarantees, there is no way of securing the tanker and the oil. That’s the toughest part of the whole mission, Hof says. ‘I’m hopeful the oil can be pumped out of the tanker by the end of the year. But it’s a tricky undertaking.’
It is no coincidence that Hof is taking such an active part in this major challenge in Yemen. The Netherlands is the only country to have actively supported development projects in Yemen for the past 44 years. After the civil war started many countries switched their focus to providing humanitarian aid exclusively.
‘The Netherlands does both, and this is also the work that the embassy continues to do,’ says Hof. ‘We collaborate with local staff in Yemen who do amazing work in very difficult circumstances. As the foreign ministry we have a duty to look after our local staff. Considering the situation there, what they manage to do is nothing short of incredible. In addition to humanitarian aid, we’re also running projects related to water, security, human rights and women’s rights. The Netherlands has an extensive development programme in Yemen, centred on issues like water, security and justice, human rights and gender. Thanks to this work, a lot of Yemenis are familiar with the Netherlands. I ran into a lot of people who knew our country and said kind things about it, on account of our projects and our ongoing involvement there. Even the warring parties see us as a positive force in Yemen.’
‘We’re working as hard as we can with the UN to ensure that the tanker can be towed away, empty, and thereby prevent an environmental catastrophe.’
An emotional encounter
For Hof it was an inspiring and emotional encounter with the country to which he has been the ambassador for a year and a half already. ‘I found it quite moving to meet our local staff in Sana’a and to see how they live. At the petrol stations in Sana’a the queues can stretch on for miles. It can take days to fill up your tank – people will sleep in their cars to keep their place in line. There are shortages of everything; and yet the people are so hospitable and resilient.’
‘You see murals and graffiti all over in Sana’a in the colour green, which is the colour of the Houthis. But I could see past all the misery and destruction to the beauty of the city, with its exceptional architecture. The road to the interior through the mountains was also magical. This country has so much beauty and potential, but for the past eight years, the people have been forced to live under such terrible hardship.’
Hof visited not only Sana’a but also Ras Isa and Hodeida, not far from frontlines. It is a fairly dangerous place because the area is dotted with landmines, laid by the warring parties. ‘There have been a large number of casualties, including women and children.’
Hof is not optimistic about Yemen’s future. ‘I’m always hopeful, but if you see the level of devastation, it’s hard to stay that way. This is such a complex conflict, and there’s no obvious solution.’ Hopefully, there will be a solution for FPO Safer tanker in the near future. ‘We’re working as hard as we can with the UN to ensure that the tanker can be towed away, empty, and thereby prevent an environmental catastrophe.’