How a rusting oil tanker off Yemen’s coast threatened the Red Sea

Caught in the middle of Yemen's civil war, the FSO Safer was left to deteriorate, risking a massive oil spill

Today's expression: Accident waiting to happen
Explore more: Lesson #606
September 11, 2023:

The FSO Safer is an oil storage vessel, meant to store oil waiting to be shipped to the market. But when rebels took over the coast of Yemen, they held the ship hostage. That was in 2015. In the years since, nobody performed required maintenance and the ship has deteriorated, risking a spill or an explosion.

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What happens if you let a ship full of oil sit in the ocean for eight years without any maintenance? This is exactly the nightmare scenario the UN recently had to contemplate

Lesson summary

Hi there everyone, I’m Jeff and this is Plain English lesson number 606. Remember at Plain English, we help you upgrade your English with stories about current events and trending topics.

We have a lot of engineers in the audience, a lot of people who work in the oil industry, logistics, shipping, things like that. And today’s story is for you. An oil storage ship, moored off the coast of Yemen, has been left in a state of disrepair, left to decay in the middle of the Red Sea. And it had a million barrels of oil inside. This week, we’ll tell the crazy story of the FSO Safer and the mad diplomatic rush to avert an environmental catastrophe.

In the second half of today’s lesson, I’ll show you how to use the English expression “accident waiting to happen.” And we have a quote of the week. Let’s get going.

Decaying oil tanker in Yemen posed environmental, economic threat

The FSO Safer is an oil storage and offloading vessel. A vessel is a ship, like a big boat. And the Safer was a vessel with one job: store oil.

It began its life in the 1970s, as an oil tanker. It was built in Japan, and it was—and still is—one of the biggest tankers ever built. It was so big that officers used to ride bicycles on the deck to get from point A to point B faster .

Its job was to transport oil—to take oil from one place in the world to another. But in the 1980s, it got a new owner: the government of Yemen.

Yemen is a country in the Arabian Peninsula, directly south of Saudi Arabia and across the Red Sea from the eastern coast of Africa. When Yemen bought the vessel, it turned it into a storage and offloading vessel.

What does that mean? Yemen is an oil-producing country in an oil-rich part of the world. It pumps oil on land. But to get that oil to market, it exports the oil via ocean-going tankers. So Yemen needed a place to store its oil before it could be loaded onto a tanker for shipment. That could either be on land or it could be out at sea.

For logistical reasons, it’s sometimes easier to store the oil out at sea, so that it can be easily loaded onto a tanker ship far from the coast. That’s what the Safer was for: Yemen would store oil on the Safer while it waited to ship the oil out to the market. The Safer was moored five miles off Yemen’s western coast , in the Red Sea.

The Safer worked great, until Yemen’s civil war broke out in 2014. Shortly after the war started, a rebel group called the Houthis took control of the capital and other parts of the country. And one part the rebels took over was the coastline where the Safer was moored. At the time, the Safer was holding 1.1 million barrels of oil.

Both sides in Yemen’s civil war claimed ownership of the oil. Both sides wanted the tens of millions of dollars’ worth of oil on board. But neither side could get the money. The internationally-recognized government couldn’t access the ship because the rebels controlled the coast—and they had weapons.

But the rebels, for all their firepower, they couldn’t sell the oil on the market. They were not the rightful owners, so no one would buy from them. So instead, the rebels used the Safer, and the oil it held, as leverage in their conflict.

And so in the intervening years, during the civil war, the Safer, and the oil sat. And sat. And sat. Eventually , most of the Safer’s crew abandoned the ship: they weren’t being paid. Those who stayed were routinely threatened with violence. A skeleton crew of only about six people remained—at one point, in 2015, just a single worker was onboard. It goes without saying that nobody did preventative maintenance: the ship’s maintenance budget went from $20 million per year to zero.

In the early 2020s, the United Nations and other international organizations realized that this was an environmental accident waiting to happen . To put this in perspective , one of the worst environmental disasters in world history was the Exxon Valdez oil spill off the coast of Alaska in 1989.

The Safer held four times more oil than that oil spill in Alaska. What’s more , the oil that was on the Safer is called Marib Light, a type of crude oil that mixes more easily with water. That means, in case of a spill, it would be harder to clean up.

Studies suggested that if the Safer disintegrated, spilling all its oil into the ocean, it would cause untold economic and environmental damage. It would wipe out fish in the area for a generation: a lot of Yeminis rely on fishing for their livelihoods. A spill would disrupt world trade through the Suez Canal . And it would prevent critical food aid from reaching Yemen, potentially starving millions of people.

That’s not it. Saudi Arabia relies on desalination plants for its drinking water: any oil spilled from the Safer would be close to the desalination plant and, therefore, would threaten Saudi Arabia’s supply of drinking water. Coral reefs could be ruined, too; beaches would be spoiled. Plant and animal life would be lost.

The Safer, in other words , posed an extraordinary environmental, health, and economic risk to the world. If a spill were to occur, the cleanup alone could cost $20 billion, not to mention an equal amount or more in disruption to world trade—all because two parties were fighting over $80 million of oil. So, to recap: possibly twenty billion dollars or more of damage could be caused by a fight over eighty million dollars of oil.

But still progress was slow. Neither the Houthi rebels nor the internationally-recognized Yemeni government was willing to give any ground.

In the meantime , the situation went from bad to worse. Every day that went by, the ship’s hull got weaker and weaker, increasing the risk that it would simply collapse. Seawater had flooded the engine room, potentially weakening pipes on board. That made it more likely the Safer would sink.

It was also at risk of explosion. Oil is highly flammable, especially when it reacts with oxygen. So oil tankers have a system of inert gas—it’s gas with low levels of oxygen. The gas surrounds the oil, eliminating the chance of explosion. On the Safer, though, the inert gas had dissipated. That made it a ticking time bomb.


On Thursday, we’ll talk about how disaster was averted—and the political and economic challenges associated with it.

Before we get to our quote of the week, I wanted to let you know we’re breathing some new life into the e-mails we send with every lesson. So if you’re a free member at PlainEnglish.com, or if you signed up to get our lesson e-mails, you know that JR sends the e-mails out every Monday and Thursday. And the e-mails have included a summary of each lesson.

Well. I think we can do better. So we are refreshing the e-mails, so that they include a fun mix of learning, community, and fun.

Going forward, our e-mails will include updates to old lessons, links to fun things I think you’d enjoy seeing, quizzes, surveys, recommendations, and more. So if you’re not getting the Monday and Thursday e-mails, this is a great time to start—just go to PlainEnglish.com/mail and that’s where you can sign up. PlainEnglish.com/mail .

If you are getting the e-mails—that’s great! Make sure to open them and reply back and tell us what you think of the new content.

Quote of the Week

Today’s quote of the week is from Franz Kafka. He said: “There are two cardinal sins from which all others spring: impatience and laziness.”

“Two cardinal sins from which all others spring” means, this is where they all start, impatience and laziness. So says the Austrian novelist Franz Kafka, “There are two cardinal sins from which all others spring: impatience and laziness.”

Next up, I’ll show you how to use the English expression, “accident waiting to happen.”

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Expression: Accident waiting to happen