Marine Environmental Disasters and Their Impact on the Region

Strategic And International

Marine Environmental Disasters And Their Impact On The Region

A Yemeni-UN Plan to Deal with the Sinking of the British Ship “Rubimar” and Avoid an Environmental Disaster” is a headline that various media outlets have covered in recent days. The summary indicates that an agreement is expected to be reached between the Yemeni government and the United Nations on how to deal with the British ship that was sunk by the Houthis in February 2024. The ship carries chemical materials and fuel. The International Development Organization in West Africa has warned that if the ship’s contents leak into the Red Sea, the area will need at least 30 years to recover from the pollution caused by the leaked materials into the sea, as the ship carries over 21,000 metric tons of ammonium phosphate fertilizer and 200 tons of fuel.

The news caught my attention for three main reasons: First, in my writings on crisis management and disasters, I have been among those who warned of the danger of a ship sinking due to a natural disaster or sea conflict, and the resulting extensive marine pollution affecting the region for decades. Second, Gulf countries have had experiences in this regard, notably during the Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s, which included the “Tanker War” when an Iranian oil field was bombed, causing between 150,000 to 200,000 barrels of oil to spill into the Arabian Gulf, leading to the shutdown of almost all desalination plants in the Arab Gulf countries except Oman. The second experience was during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, where Iraqi sources indicate that the Iraqi regime opened Kuwaiti oil pipelines in the Arabian Gulf, causing an estimated 11 million barrels and 20 million barrels to spill into the Gulf waters, turning them into oil lakes. The third reason is the successful United Nations plan to transport over a million barrels of crude oil that was aboard the oil tanker “Safer,” which the Houthis had been holding since 2015 off the coast of Hodeidah. A leakage of that quantity of oil into the Red Sea would have been a major environmental catastrophe.

These incidents are just the tip of the iceberg. With the unprecedented maritime security threats, we may face similar scenarios in the near future, especially with two facts: the use of technology in maritime conflicts, as the Houthis managed to attack a ship underwater for the first time on February 18, 2024, and on March 14, 2024, they launched an anti-ship ballistic missile towards the Gulf of Aden. Although it did not hit its targets, it’s a significant indicator that must be considered.
Given the importance of current efforts to maintain maritime security, a matter of concern for all countries worldwide, discussing marine environmental pollution should be a priority for all regional and international parties through continuous strategies. It’s not just about dealing with each case separately. While the United Nations’ success in saving the Red Sea from the sinking disaster of the “Safer” oil tanker was a significant experience, it required a budget of $142 million, with contributions from some regional countries toward that budget.

In my estimation, if the threats to maritime navigation in the Bab el-Mandeb strait pose a challenge faced by all countries worldwide, then its effects on the Arab Gulf countries are multiplied, not only due to the Gulf countries’ reliance on that passage in their external trade but also because marine pollution is the greatest challenge in light of promising development projects on the Red Sea coast. I believe that the Arab Gulf countries must pursue three parallel tracks:
First track: Making this issue a matter of concern for the Emergency Management Center of the Gulf Cooperation Council through integrated plans on how Gulf countries can collaborate to address the risk of marine environmental pollution suddenly, not only because it is related to the Bab el-Mandeb strait but also because, amid regional escalation, the Strait of Hormuz is not far from that scenario. This is evident from the developments witnessed by the naval forces of the Gulf countries in recent years, considering that studies have confirmed that 30% of oil spillage incidents worldwide occur in the Arabian Gulf region.

The second track: Conducting quality exercises in maritime safety either among Arab Gulf countries or between these countries and regional and international partners, targeting training on how to deal with maritime disasters, especially oil spills, and rapid rescue. This is considering that these are the same objectives targeted by naval exercises conducted recently in the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea.

The third and final track: Designing simulation models with two aspects, one research-oriented and the other executive. For example, Western research centers prioritize the scenario of closing the Strait of Hormuz significantly due to the ongoing tension between the US and Iran. While Iran taking such action is unlikely and strategically erroneous, the idea is to focus on formulating worst-case scenarios and then preparing for them, which is the essence of strategic thinking. Therefore, simulating the response to an oil spill in the sea and its impact on the marine environment, as well as alternative plans for it, might be beneficial. It may also be useful to include this issue in the curricula of national defense colleges in the Arab Gulf countries and make it a topic for training courses that include the experiences of other countries in facing such disasters.

Considering the importance of the efforts undertaken by the United Nations to address maritime disasters, there is a need for regular regional efforts and preparedness because disrupting navigation in passages can be addressed through deterrence mechanisms, but marine pollution on a large scale is a danger that threatens marine wealth not only currently but also for decades to come. There may be a need for comprehensive maritime security strategies, which I believe are the essence of national security for countries described as maritime, including the Arab Gulf countries.

Dr. Ashraf Mohammed Keshk

Dr. Ashraf Mohammed Keshk