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Blinken, Saudi counterpart discuss efforts to extend Yemen truce, avoid oil spill

Two-month UN-brokered truce between Iran-backed Houthis and Saudi-led coalition is set to end this week; supertanker Safer stranded off Yemen’s coast since 2015 poses major threat

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, right, and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal Bin Farhan Al Saud speak to reporters at the State Department in Washington, Oct. 14, 2021. (Jonathan Ernst/Pool via AP)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, right, and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal Bin Farhan Al Saud speak to reporters at the State Department in Washington, Oct. 14, 2021. (Jonathan Ernst/Pool via AP)

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken spoke Monday with Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, addressing the ongoing civil war in Yemen and its regional implications, including efforts taken to avoid a major oil spill from an oil tanker, the Safer, which has been stranded off Yemen’s coast in the Red Sea since 2015.

“The Secretary thanked the Foreign Minister for Saudi Arabia’s efforts to strengthen and extend the truce in Yemen, and they discussed efforts to avert the economic, environmental, and humanitarian threats posed by the Safer oil tanker in the Red Sea region,” according to a readout from the US State Department.

Monday’s phone call was the second to take place between Blinken and his Saudi counterpart within the last couple of months. In March, they spoke after attending a summit in Israel with foreign ministers from four Arab states.

At the time, Blinken and bin Farhan discussed a UN proposal for a Ramadan truce in Yemen. The Iran-backed Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led coalition eventually both agreed to observe the two-month cessation of hostilities, the first nationwide truce since 2016.

It is set to end this week.

Yemen’s intractable war has killed hundreds of thousands directly or indirectly and displaced millions, triggering the world’s worst ongoing humanitarian crisis, according to the United Nations.

Previous ceasefires have been ineffective. A national truce ahead of peace talks in April 2016 was violated almost immediately, as were other ceasefires that year. Both the Houthis and Saudi Arabia welcomed the latest initiative, which follows a surge in attacks but also increasing diplomacy including ongoing talks — snubbed by the rebels — in Riyadh.

Forces loyal to Yemen’s Houthi rebels take part in a military parade marking the seventh anniversary of the Saudi-led coalition’s intervention in their country, in the capital Sana’a, on March 31, 2022. (MOHAMMED HUWAIS / AFP)

The bloody conflict has also led to a potentially catastrophic environmental and humanitarian disaster in the Red Sea with wide-ranging implications.

The potential release of a million barrels of oil from the rapidly decaying FSO Safer, which has been sitting off the coast of Yemen for five years, would ruin the health and livelihoods of millions of people in the region and cause severe damage to thousands of kilometers of coral reefs, including those of the northern Red Sea and Gulf of Eilat/Aqaba, which appear to be the most robust in the face of climate change, experts have warned.

“The Safer is a rapidly decaying and unstable supertanker that contains four times the amount of oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez,” the US State Department said in a statement Friday. The 1989 oil spill from the Exxon Valdez oil tanker in Alaska led to one of the largest environmental disasters in US history.

The FSO Safer in an undated photo. (Courtesy: Safer Exploration and Production Operations)

The statement reiterated the threats posed by the Safer oil tanker, noting, “It could leak, spill, or explode at any time, severely disrupting shipping routes in the Gulf region and other industries across the Red Sea region, unleashing an environmental disaster, and worsening the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.”

The UN has recently proposed an $80 million emergency operation to offload the oil from the Safer to a temporary vessel. While nearly half of the funds were already raised in an event co-hosted by the UN and the Netherlands earlier this month, “more is urgently needed,” according to the US State Department.

The statement also noted that the proposed operation may soon be more difficult to carry out.

“By October, high winds and volatile currents will make the UN operation more dangerous and increase the risk of the ship breaking apart. In the event of a spill, the cleanup alone is expected to cost $20 billion,” the State Department warned.

Decay inside the FSO Safer, moored off Ras Issa port, Yemen, in 2019. (I.R. Consilium via AP)

During their Monday phone call, Blinken and bin Farhan also discussed the need for a “global response to the food security crisis” amid “President [Vladimir] Putin’s brutal war,” and challenges imposed by Iran’s nuclear program.

US and Saudi officials have reportedly been in talks about arranging a meeting between President Joe Biden and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman when the former is slated to travel to the region next month.

The White House has slowly sought to improve ties with Saudi Arabia after Biden came down hard on Riyadh and its crown prince during his election campaign over the country’s human rights record and the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey.

But as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues to rock the global energy market, the US is finding itself increasingly reliant on Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest crude oil exporter.

AFP and Sue Surkes contributed to this report.

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