PERHAPS no other recent foray in diplomacy has attracted as much attention as the recent Chinese triumph in negotiating the Iran-Saudi agreement. It is a triumph that was achieved at a time when the United States and its Western allies were seeking to tighten the screws on China, with sanction upon sanction being imposed, scheduled meetings being cancelled and clear statements that while the US did not want war, they were in a direct competition that they intended to win if they could, without provoking a conflict. Loose statements at the US president’s level suggested that the “three assurances” on the Chinese aim of reunification of Taiwan were losing their value.
The US State Department has welcomed the success of Chinese diplomacy — in rather lukewarm terms — but the plethora of comments by Western commentators all question the durability of the rapprochement, given what they see as irreconcilable differences between an ostracised Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council — an organisation that owed its origins to apprehensions entertained by the largely Sunni countries of Iran’s relationship with the Shias in the region, and in particular, Iran’s relationship with the Houthis in Yemen. These fears may well be well founded. Neither the Saudis nor the Iranians have suggested that all issues are on their way to a solution, but the resurrection of a 20-year-old accord and the reopening of embassies are good signs.
What seems to have been missed, however, is what the current pleasant climate can do to make the region safer, specifically with regard to the FSO Safer, the tanker parked in the Yemeni port and in danger of collapsing.
In March 2015, soon after civil war began in Yemen, the tanker fell into Houthi hands; the force had taken control of the coastline in the area where it was moored. In the years that followed, the tanker’s “structural condition deteriorated significantly, leading to the risk of a catastrophic hull breach or explosion of oil vapours that would typically be suppressed by inert gas generated on board”. The tanker, at that point, was believed to have 1.14 million barrels of oil worth up to $80m, which “became a point of contention in negotiations between the Houthi rebels and Yemeni government, both of which asserted claims to the cargo and vessel”.
The Saudis, UAE and Iran could deploy their resources to unload the oil from FSO Safer.
Earlier this month, the head of the United Nations Development Programme, Achim Steiner, said in a statement that the UN agency had “purchased the Safer along with a tanker undergoing refit in China to begin the first phase of the operation to remove an estimated 1.14m barrels of crude oil. The operation is estimated to cost $129m, of which $75m had been received, and a further $20m was pledged”. Apparently, the UNDP is to begin operations in May 2023.
It may have set a date, but it would perhaps be best for the UNDP to hasten the process relying on the fact that in the current circumstances the Iranians could be depended upon to prevent any obstructive steps being taken by the Houthis.
It is, in my view, a fortunate circumstance that there is no need for the deployment of Western or Chinese expertise. The countries of the region have the tankers and the tugboats, etc needed for the project. While I am no expert on shipping matters, I do believe that the current propitious climate should be taken advantage of, and instead of waiting for the tanker to be refitted in China the Saudis, the UAE and Iran should deploy the resources they have and do this more quickly than the UNDP envisages.
Why am I anxious that this unloading of the oil from the FSO Safer be done very quickly? There are spoilers both within the region, and more importantly perhaps, from outside the region who would like to undo the success of Chinese diplomacy. Despite the Saudi efforts to carve out an independent policy, they do remain largely dependent on Western sources for the arms that they believe they need. After India, Saudi Arabia is the largest importer of arms and that means they need not only the support of the US State Department but also of the US Senate. Some statements coming from US senators have made it clear they are sceptical about the success of Chinese diplomacy, and may be tempted to sabotage it.
The tanker and the possible leakage of its contents are an environmental danger to the Red Sea and Suez Canal routes but it is important for Pakistan also because this country’ s coast too would be affected by one more man-made disaster, something that we should bend our diplomatic efforts to avoid.
The writer is a former foreign secretary, and former ambassador to Iran and the United States.
Published in Dawn, March 23rd, 2023
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