x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

The GCC can solve, not just manage, the Somali piracy threat

The GCC states can and should make a tangible difference by publicly, militarily, financially and politically supporting the adoption of a more comprehensive strategy to addressing the region's piracy problem.

'Combating piracy is not just the job of governments. It requires joint action from both the international community and the private sector." It was an accurate statement, delivered by Andrew Shapiro, a US State Department assistant secretary of political and military affairs, at a conference in Washington, DC, on Wednesday. But were these yet more hollow words on the subject of piracy?

Despite the belated, conventional military efforts of the United States, the European Union and others, Somali piracy continues to spread like a cancer across the Indian Ocean. That criminal wave has shown growing sophistication, agility and dogged determination to counter the presence of 30 foreign warships, helicopters and maritime patrol aircraft.

Having lost the military initiative, coalition navies are now forced to patrol 2.5 million square miles of that vast ocean looking for the proverbial needles in the haystack of world commerce. Those military forces have failed to identify Somali piracy as a form of maritime insurgency and address it accordingly.

At the weekend, UAE special forces recaptured the UAE-owned bulk carrier MV Arrilah-I, one of the first examples of the coastal naval capabilities of GCC countries being utilised to fight piracy. The captured pirates will face trial in the UAE federal court, which sets another precedent.

Gulf countries should be more involved and, in part, this means a more robust maritime security presence. But opinion is divided on the long-term response to this scourge. Simply put, it can be divided into two camps: private security, maritime insurance and shipping companies, with western government support, want to manage the problem; regional governance experts want to solve it.

This divided approach is based upon money and politics. For private security companies and the maritime insurance sector, piracy is a welcome additional revenue. For shipping companies and western governments, management is more cost effective and politically expedient.

For those who want to cure the problem, and provide stability to the region, the road is long and complicated by today's strategic environment and regional upheaval.

The statistics on Somali piracy, released by the International Chamber of Commerce, make for grim reading. Since the beginning of the year, there have been more than 83 attacks directly linked to Somali pirates, 14 hijackings and seven people killed.

Unless the international community can unite and deliver a comprehensive response, at best Somali piracy will only be a poorly managed problem and a blight on the region's mercantile success. The failure to adopt a more wide-ranging, comprehensive policy will see pirates inevitably inspire copy-cat practitioners in other failing or poverty-affected areas of the world such as the Gulf of Guinea, South Asia, the Caribbean and the Americas.

The current response tries to address Somali piracy as either a military issue or one of ship protection. In reality, it stems from a failure of the international community to address 20 years of civil war and non-existent governance in Somalia. Piracy's catalyst was the appalling tolerance of illegal fishing and the unlicensed dumping of toxic waste off Somalia's coastline, which has robbed coastal fishing communities of their traditional way of life.

Some estimate that illegal fishing has robbed Somalia of $300 million (Dh1.1 billion) a year for the better part of a generation. It is a huge sum for a country that relies upon the World Food Programme to feed its people. EU humanitarian assistance is still less than illegal fishing was costing Somalia.

The GCC states can and should make a tangible difference by publicly, militarily, financially and politically supporting the adoption of a more comprehensive strategy that formulates a workable cross-sector approach. This could be achieved by establishing a foundation that supported a variety of coordinated projects.

Leadership and support of such an initiative would signal a genuine commitment to create a series of favourable conditions - bringing pirates under control and then beginning to rehabilitate Somalia to rejoin the international community. Such an initiative would require significant regional support, but with the influence of the GCC states behind it, real momentum could be achieved.

That momentum is now lacking because anti-piracy measures are governed by low-order foreign political initiatives or the tactical exploits of deployed naval forces.

In the authoritative 2010 analysis, Maritime Security in Africa - An assessment of Maritime Terrorism and Piracy, Johnathan Meyer, from the security consultancy GlobeSec, provides an African interpretation of the problem - and one which chimes with a comprehensive strategy. Meyer argues that the problem should be solved, not just managed, but he adds that until the actual effect on the global economy is known, solutions like the naval task force in the Indian Ocean will be misspent resources.

A united GCC initiative, like the support for improving governance by building local prisons and establishing regional coastguards, could tip the balance towards an actual cure.


David Mugridge is a maritime security consultant and former British Royal Navy officer