DUBAI // Dhow owners are refusing to travel between the UAE and southern Somalia after gun-wielding pirates seized seven of their vessels in four days. Although bigger ships grab the headlines, the wooden dhows that set sail from Dubai Creek, Sharjah and Ajman on the treacherous journey to Somalia, trading everything from televisions to cars, foodstuff and livestock, are also being seized regularly, captains said.
Instead of being hijacked for ransom, the pirates use the dhows as "mother ships" for their skiffs to launch attacks on larger boats. There has been an unprecedented number of attacks on dhows during the past few weeks, according to Emirates-based dhow owners, who held an emergency meeting in Dubai on Monday to discuss hijackings. They decided to cease trade until the situation improves and hope the embargo will put pressure on Somali businessmen, who they hope will be able to influence the pirates.
"We are very worried; it's much worse than it's ever been before," said Jagdip Ayachi, a Dubai resident and owner of the dhow MSV Sea Queen, which was hijacked en route from Kismayo, Somalia, to Sharjah on Saturday. "We've decided not to load any vessels to Mogadishu or the southern ports until the release of these vessels and an arrangement is made over security." Ninety-seven Indian nationals are being held on seven dhows, which are registered in India, according to the Indian Shipping Authority.
They were all hijacked between Friday and Sunday, according to the boat owners. During the emergency meeting the eighth pirate attack on a UAE operated ship was announced. A large merchant vessel, MV Iceberg 1, with a crew of 24, had been taken over en route from Aden to Jebel Ali port. The 4,500-tonne ship is operated by Dubai-based Azal Shipping and Cargo and was carrying generators, transformers and empty fuel tanks. The crew was composed of Yemenis, Ghanaians, Sudanese, Pakistanis and Filipinos.
Even if dhows wanted to sail, they would now face difficulties after the Indian Shipping Authority said yesterday that it had prohibited "mechanised sailing vessels" from trading south-west of the line between Salalah in southern Oman and Male, the capital of the Maldives, an area that includes Somalian and Yemeni waters. Captain MM Saggi, an official at the Indian Shipping Authority, said the Indian navy might soon get involved after the slew of attacks on Indian-registered dhows operating from the UAE.
"The navy is very much concerned about this situation. An offensive by them is quite possible," he said. But the sailors hoped their embargo might solve things before more drastic action was needed. "We are hoping the message might get through this way," said Mr Khanani, the owner Al Khaderi, a large dhow with a 1,100-tonne capacity which was carrying a crew of 11. "Our Somali customers say they are helping but how much they are trying to help we don't know. So far the navies aren't doing anything to get our ships released."
Dhows generally carry a mixed cargo from the UAE to the ports of Mogadishu and Kismayo, loaded with building materials, cars, tyres, foodstuffs and electronics. On the return journey they bring charcoal to sell in the Gulf. Mr Khanani has three boats and his other dhows have both been hijacked before - one in July and one in November. He said he has never been asked for a ransom. The ships usually were returned after 10 or 12 days when their fuel and food supplies ran out.
"They run around with our boats, using them as a mother ship for their skiffs," he said. "They use them to grab tankers and big ships, they use up all the fuel and diesel, and after that they just take off." Tabrez Mohammed, a sailor who is currently in Bossaso, said pirates on ships coming from the area where the dhows were being held were heavily armed. "These men have no fear of death and would not mind killing the sailors too; even the slightest move from any of the sailors can upset them and they may shoot," Mr Mohammed said. "They have very good knowledge of how to operate the GPS and information systems on the ships. They are making sure no information is coming out from these vessels."
Both Mr Khanani and Mr Ayachi said they had not been able to contact their crews since the hijack. Experts attributed the rise in attacks to several factors. But with the seas around Somalia patrolled by naval vessels, pirates are being pushed further into the Indian Ocean. "When you have a mother ship you have more range; many of the recent large attacks have been in deep waters and they can only be done with a mother ship," said Riad Kahwaji, the chief executive of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai. "Pirates are like guerrilla fighters, they adapt to new environments and utilise all opportunities."
Dhows, made of wood, often do not show up on ships' radars, and with so many commercial dhows in the water, provide a useful camouflage, he said. Pirates could also be ramping up their efforts ahead of monsoon season, said Mr Kahwaji. The south-west monsoon brings high winds and rough seas to the Gulf of Aden and western Arabian Sea for much of June, July and August, making conditions difficult for small boats such as those used by pirates.