France to help Lebanon form ‘credible’ government

Samir Khatib, who withdrew his candidacy to lead a government, with Lebanon’s caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Beirut. (Reuters)
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Updated 10 December 2019

France to help Lebanon form ‘credible’ government

  • Postponement of parliamentary consultations to name a new prime minister causes uncertainty

BEIRUT: France will on Wednesday host an International Support Group (ISG) meeting dedicated to helping crisis-hit Lebanon form an “effective and credible” new government.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun has told UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon Jan Kubis that an official delegation from his country would be attending the gathering in Paris.

Head of Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc, Mohammed Raad, said it could take “a month or two” to find a solution to the situation but added: “We are ready to make concessions but not at the expense of the national sovereignty and integrity.”

The Paris meeting comes as Lebanon faced more political uncertainty after parliamentary consultations to name a new prime minister were postponed.

Businessman Samir Khatib on Sunday withdrew as a candidate to be the country’s next premier, instead announcing his backing for caretaker PM Saad Hariri to form a new government.

The French Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that Wednesday’s talks would “call on the international community of Lebanon to form an effective and credible government.” 

According to his media office, Aoun hoped the meeting would “lead to results that truly translate the support of the ISG member states, especially amid the delicate economic conditions in Lebanon.”

Kubis told Aoun that the meeting would “reflect ISG member states’ commitment to helping Lebanon.”

Meanwhile, Khatib’s decision to quit came after he visited Lebanon’s highest Sunni authority, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdellatif Deryan, who told him a consensus had been reached to name Hariri as prime minister. Hariri resigned a month ago from the post following widespread street protests over government corruption and economic hardships.

Hariri had said he would only lead a new administration of experts, while Aoun with the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), Hezbollah and Amal Movement had insisted on a technopolitical government which demonstrators were against.

Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri invited “the caretaker government led by Hariri to assume its responsibilities fully until a new PM is designated and receive the international positive climate.”

However, Raad said: “The situation has changed. We will find a solution for the government issue. It might take us a month or two, but we will reach a solution. The issue is not whether we form a government or not but lies mainly in the economic situation.

“We will not discuss conditions that make Lebanon’s policy dependent of another state.”

Although wanting a government of experts, protesters were divided over the nomination of Hariri.

Public affairs expert and activist, Walid Fakhreddine, told Arab News: “The civil movement is demanding an independent government of experts and Hariri is not independent of the ruling political class.”

He said the current political situation was “a manipulation inside a political conflict in Lebanon that we are not part of. The civil movement refuses to have representatives of the revolution inside this government.”

Activist, Dr. Ziad Abdel Samad, said: “The civil movement wants a PM who is independent of the ruling political class. The head of the Christian Phalange Party suggested yesterday the name of former ambassador to the UN, Nawaf Salam, who is currently a judge at the International Court of Justice, to lead the government, which is acceptable given Salam’s competencies.

“But what is not acceptable is forming a government of political parties’ members who have failed to lead the country since they came to power 15 years ago and since the election of President Aoun.”


How the FSO Safer is an impending danger to the Red Sea and Yemen

Updated 21 September 2020

How the FSO Safer is an impending danger to the Red Sea and Yemen

  • Houthi refusal of passage to experts to carry out repairs has raised specter of a floating time bomb
  • Saudi Arabia has called for a meeting for Arab environment ministers to discuss ways to avoid a catastrophe

AL-MUKALLA, Yemen: Until the Iran-backed Houthi militia seized Yemen’s western port city of Hodeidah in late 2014, foreign and local experts had been regularly visiting a 45-year-old oil tanker moored in the Red Sea.

It was a practice that ensured that the FSO Safer, abandoned just a few kilometers off Yemen’s coast, did not touch off a disaster by exploding or sinking and spilling oil. But having witnessed the devastation caused by the Aug. 4 blast in Beirut and taken its lessons to heart, the Arab world cannot afford to ignore the imminent danger posed by Houthi stalling tactics.

Expressing concerns about the condition of the vessel, Saudi Arabia has called for a meeting for Arab environment ministers on Monday. According to a statement issued on Sunday by Kamal Hassan, assistant secretary-general and head of the Economic Affairs Sector at the Arab League, the aim of the special session is to discuss ways and mechanisms to activate Resolution No. 582, which was adopted by the Council of Arab Ministers Responsible for Environmental Affairs in Oct. 2019.

The objective is to “find an appropriate solution to avoid an environmental catastrophe due to the failure to maintain the oil ship Safer anchored off the Ras Issa oil port in the Red Sea since 2015.”

When the Houthi militia gained control of Hodeidah, the FSO Safer was carrying 1.1 million barrels of oil, or almost half of its capacity, according to local officials. No sooner had the fighters tightened their grip on the city than technical experts fled the area, realizing that it had become too dangerous for them to stay on.

Over the past two years, the FSO Safer has attracted regional as well as international attention on and off, thanks in part to the regular appearance on social media of photos of rusting pipes and water leaking into the engine rooms, raising the specter of a floating powder keg.

INNUMBER

45 Age of oil tanker FSO Safer

1.1m Barrels of crude oil in tanker

During the same period, Yemeni government officials, environmentalists and foreign diplomats have sounded the alarm over possible outcomes that could both exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and take a heavy environmental toll on the Red Sea littoral states.

The UN has suggested sending a team of experts to Hodeidah to assess the damage to the FSO Safer, but the Houthi militia, who want to pocket the proceeds from sale of the oil, have rejected the proposal. The oil in the FSO Safer’s storage tanks was once estimated to be worth $40 million, but its value now may be less than half of that as crude prices have fallen a lot since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, according to reports.

The internationally recognized government of Yemen has repeatedly accused the Houthi militia of using the decaying tanker as a bargaining chip, citing demands such as the resumption of salaries for public servants in areas under its control, removal of government forces from Hodeidah, and more relaxed inspection of ships bound for the port.

An oil spill would devastate the livelihoods of nearly four million Yemeni people, with fishing stocks taking 25 years to recover. (AFP)

In July, the government requested the UN Security Council to convene an urgent session to discuss the Safer issue amid concern that time was running out. In almost all their meetings with foreign envoys and diplomats, Yemeni officials bring up the matter of the tanker and the attendant risk of an environmental disaster in the Red Sea. For the past several months, Western and Arab diplomats, UN officials, aid organizations and experts too have underscored the urgency of breaking the deadlock in order to avert a human, economic and environmental catastrophe.

In July, the UN described the rusting tanker as a “ticking time bomb,” adding that the tanker’s cargo of oil could cause an environmental disaster four times bigger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill off Alaska. Last week, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres added his voice to the growing concern over the deadlock by appealing to the Houthi militia to give UN experts access to the oil tanker.

As for the Trump administration, its views were conveyed via a tweet by the US mission to the UN that said: “The US calls on the Houthis to cease obstruction and interference in aid ops and fuel imports. We urge the Houthis to cease their assault on religious freedom and to permit UN technical teams immediate, unconditional access to the Safer oil tanker.”

In comments to Arab News in June, Michael Aron, the British ambassador to Yemen, said unless the Houthi leadership allowed experts to address the FSO Safer’s problems, the potential damage to the environment is far greater than that caused by the recent spillage of 20,000 tons of fuel in Russia’s Siberia. “The threat to the environment in the Red Sea is enormous, and will impact on all the countries who share this coastline,” he said.

Independent researchers too say the condition of Safer is deeply concerning. In a paper for the Atlantic Council in 2019 entitled “Why the massive floating bomb in the Red Sea needs urgent attention,” energy experts Dr. Ian Ralby, Dr. David Soud and Rohini Ralby said the potential consequences of an oil-tanker disaster in the area include an end to the two-year ceasefire in Hodeidah and an aggravation of Yemen’s humanitarian crisis.

“The risk of explosion increases by the day, and if that were to happen, not only would it damage or sink any ships in the vicinity, but it would create an environmental crisis roughly four and a half times the size of the Exxon Valdez oil spill,” the three scientists said. Other experts have speculated that just a stray bullet from an exchange of fire between rival factions could trigger off an explosion of the FSO Safer’s oil cargo.

Yemeni NGO Holm Akhdar says 126,000 people working in the fishing industry could lose their jobs in the case of a disaster.

“Even worse, given the complexity of this war, an errant bullet or shell from any one of the combatants could trigger a blast as large as Beirut’s August 4th disaster, prompting a historic oil spill,” Dave Harden, managing director of Georgetown Strategy Group, wrote in an op-ed in The Hill last month. He added: “Clean-up efforts would be daunting — given the insecurity of being in a war zone and the additional health risks from COVID-19.”

Similar concerns have been expressed by local government officials and fishermen in Hodeidah. Waleed Al-Qudaimi, deputy governor of Hodeidah, said that any spillage from the FSO Safer would create a humanitarian crisis as severe as the one caused by the Houthi insurgency.

“It (the oil spill) will add an additional burden that will affect Yemen for the next decades, deprive thousands of people of their jobs and destroy marine biodiversity in Yemeni waters,” he said. Al-Qudaimi appealed to the international community to keep up pressure on the militia to allow maintenance work to be carried out.

For a country reeling from a combination of conflict, humanitarian crisis, plunging currency and crumbling economy, repairs to an abandoned oil tanker off its coast might not carry the ring of urgency normally associated with a major disaster.

But now that the world knows what happened when Lebanese officials ignored warnings for years over a cache of highly explosive material stored in a Beirut port warehouse, the importance of resolving the FSO Safer issue cannot be overstated.

 

Twitter: @saeedalBatati