Negotiating to avoid disaster: what would you do?
Teaching negotiation skills for public policy students through a real-world simulation.
Twelve students sit around the table. On the laptop in front of them is the proposal that they have painstakingly negotiated over the past few hours. The atmosphere is tense. ‘You must agree to this. We’re almost out of time, and it is your people who will suffer the most if we fail today,’ one of the students says to a pair sat nearest the door. The two appear to be the final holdouts before a deal can be struck, but their body language is not promising.
It is the last day of Dr Emily Jones’s Negotiation Skills for Public Policy module. Students are nearing the end of their final simulation, ‘FSO Safer: negotiating to avoid disaster’, a complex, multi-party, multi-issue negotiation that requires them to apply all of the lessons they have learnt throughout the module.
Negotiation simulations are common teaching devices in professional schools. But a lot of negotiation teaching material is designed for business schools focused on the private sector, a world in which profit is often the bottom line. In public policy, the motivations, risks, and conflicts involved in a negotiation are often more complex. One step inside the FSO Safer negotiating room and you can see that for the students this simulation feels different: the ecology, economy, and well-being of millions of people in the Red Sea region are all at stake.
The FSO Safer – a real-world disaster waiting to happen.
The simulation centers around a real-life scenario: off the coast of Yemen, in the Red Sea, an enormous oil tanker is rusting. The Floating Storage and Offloading Unit (FSO) Safer contains 1.1 million barrels of oil, but due to the ongoing civil war between Ansar Allah (also known as the Houthis) and the Saudi-backed, internationally recognised government of Yemen, the tanker has not been maintained since 2015. With the rotting hull deteriorating every day, an oil spill from the Safer is widely considered both inevitable and imminent unless prompt action is taken.
The consequences of such a spill will be dire. Depending on the season, models suggest oil may spread as far north as the coasts of Egypt, Israel and Jordan or as far south as Djibouti and Somalia. The ecology of the whole Red Sea will be at risk, while the oil will likely block access to the Suez Canal for months, disrupting global trade. Desalination plants in Yemen and Saudi Arabia will close, threatening the region’s water supply and, if the spill is accompanied by a fire, a very real possibility, air pollution will jeopardise the health of vast numbers of the region’s inhabitants. Perhaps most concerning of all, a spill from the Safer will greatly exacerbate the ongoing humanitarian disaster in the country of Yemen, now in its eighth year of civil war. The UN estimates that upwards of 300,000 children in Yemen could die because of the effect port closures would have on food and aid imports.
The disaster appears easy to prevent from a technical perspective: the oil must be transferred from the Safer to another oil tanker by an experienced maritime salvage company. However, political barriers have restricted progress for years. Talks between the UN and Ansar Allah, the group that controls the Safer, have been stalled since 2019, with each side blaming the other for the impasse. In addition, while Ansar Allah is the de facto owner of the Safer and can control access to the vessel, the UN also needs the agreement of the de jure owners of the Safer, the internationally recognised government of Yemen, whom Ansar Allah is fighting. The UN would also require approval from the government of Saudi Arabia, which has led the coalition against Ansar Allah and controls a naval, air and land blockade of Ansar Allah territory. Then there is the question of how the operation will be funded, with international donors apparently hesitant to contribute. With so many issues on the table, and such hostility between several of the parties involved, negotiations would not prove easy.
Adapting the case for teaching
When Emily Jones first heard of the Safer, she could see the potential for teaching purposes. She had been looking to write a new complex negotiation simulation to use in the final session of her negotiation skills module. Negotiation simulations designed for the public sector are far less common than those designed for training private sector negotiators. But public sector negotiations, particularly ones across conflict zones, constitute some of the world’s most challenging, but most important, negotiations. In such discussions, public sector negotiators must confront unique obstacles, navigate difficult-to-define goals, and answer to a broad range of stakeholders. Emily hoped that a new public sector-focused simulation would not only teach students all the typical negotiation moves and skills common to both private and public sector negotiations, but would also highlight some of these other important challenges and opportunities relevant to public sector negotiations.
Foremost among these desired learning outcomes was the role of empathy and relationship management. Both were crucial to the Safer case. Negotiations can and do fall apart (in the classroom and the real world) if those around the table aren’t attuned to the feelings of others, and when those feelings are already so heightened, such as in the context of Yemen’s civil war, the risk is so much greater.
To craft the simulation, Emily turned to the Case Centre team. Together they produced a simulation based on the real-life scenario, although simplified: after all, participants needed to condense months of negotiation into just a matter of hours.
A success story?
The simulation was taught for the first time in December 2022. In the classroom, approximately three-quarters of student groups successfully reached an agreement, each finding a slightly different solution. When the class came together as a whole for a debrief, the students were surprised to find that there were several different ways to craft an agreement, even though a solution had initially seemed impossible given the constraints of the scenario.
Pedagogically, at least, the simulation was a huge success. As Farah Al Hadid, an MPP student from Jordan with prior experience of similarly tense negotiations, put it, “I really enjoyed the FSO Safer simulation because it allowed us to place ourselves in the seats of decision makers in a real-world situation where the stakes are very high and the tension between the negotiating parties is palpable. I know that I will apply a lot of what I learned in the negotiations module to my own profession, especially when it comes to probably the most complicated types of negotiations with multiple issues and multiple parties and very high stakes.”
The Case Centre team is now working with Dr Jones to create a whole module’s worth of simulations for public policy negotiations which instructors around the world can use to help train better negotiators for the public sector.
As for the real-world FSO Safer, while an agreement was reached between the major parties in March 2022, implementation has remained a challenge (an important learning outcome for the class). At the time of writing, the oil still remains on board the Safer and a leak is, if anything, only more likely every day.
If you would like to learn more about the School’s negotiation simulations, please contact the Case Centre at email@example.com