x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

GCC navies 'will be key to fighting pirates'

Officials say the GCC will be critical in the scourge of piracy during the Counter-Piracy and Ship Security Summit.

DUBAI // The GCC will be critical to a successful regional fight against the scourge of piracy, officials said yesterday at the Counter-Piracy and Ship Security Summit. To date, GCC navies lack a significant ocean-going capability. The only GCC vessel used in Operation Ocean Shield, the Nato and EU anti-piracy effort off the Horn of Africa, was a Bahraini frigate on a three-week mission.

However, in May the UAE will assume the chairmanship of the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), a strategic group made up of 33 countries around the Indian Ocean. The symposium, which will be held in Abu Dhabi, is dedicated to keeping the ocean free of disruptions. Piracy will be a key issue. "The Indian Ocean will be the most important ocean in the world in the 21st century," said Commodore Ranjit Rai, the former director of Indian naval operations.

He said the transfer of IONS to the UAE is "an attempt by India to bring the UAE and the GCC into the forum to breed understanding and help bring stability to the Indian Ocean". Cmdre Rai said the Straits of Hormuz were a choke point for the global economy. "If they close even for a day the price of oil will jump and there would be widespread geopolitical consequences, so the GCC must be engaged," he said.

The UAE already is leading Task Force 152, a multinational fleet that patrols the Gulf, although it is not specifically an anti-piracy force. "There has been a shift of piracy from the Gulf of Aden into the Indian Ocean," said Col Ala Abdulla Seyali, the commander of the Bahraini Coast Guard. "We are wary of piracy spreading to the Arabian Gulf." He said the GCC has improved surveillance inside territorial waters, defined as those within 12 nautical miles of shore.

Officials pointed to the capture of the Greek-flagged tanker Maran Centaurus, 800 miles off Somalia on November 29, as evidence of the pirates extending their range. However, pirates striking so far out to sea may be evidence of success in combating them nearer to shore, in the Gulf of Aden. Seventy-nine pirates have been captured so far this year. "It is a concern from a naval perspective that we do not have enough vessels to reduce piracy in the Indian Ocean because of the huge area," said Cmdr Stein Hagalid, the branch head of the Nato Shipping Centre. He said 30 vessels are committed to counter-piracy now and 50 could be available within a year, "but to effectively suppress piracy in the Indian Ocean we would need a thousand".

He said contributions of ships from the GCC would be valuable, "partly due to their cultural understanding of the region. But this is a political decision". The enormity of the Indian Ocean makes direct protection of shipping virtually impossible, shifting the emphasis to self-defence and evasive manoeuvres by merchantmen. Many experts say the best strategy is to disrupt their networks and control clans on land. Anecdotal evidence suggests Somali clans are developing pirate training schools and have established a stock exchange where people buy shares in future income from ransoms.

An estimated $80 million (Dh294m) to $150 million was paid in ransoms last year. The life expectancy in Somalia is 42 years, and 43 per cent of the population subsists on US$1 (Dh3.7) per day. Piracy is an attractive career for many Somali men, even if the risk of being apprehended increases. Because piracy is a legal minefield, the vast majority of pirates seized are returned to land, where they are free to join another mission. Generally, the only means of disrupting pirates is throwing their weapons overboard.

There is no official war declared on piracy, meaning there are no clear rules of engagement. That prevents vessels from pre-emptively firing on suspected pirates or launching attacks on pirate bases. Meanwhile, shipping companies are facing enormous increases in insurance premiums, because they have to buy "war risk" policies. tbrooks@thenational.ae