x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

GCC unites to protect oil-shipping lanes in Gulf

The centre is expected to contribute to securing vital oil export routes.

ABU DHABI // A GCC maritime centre to be established in Bahrain will aim to boost security in the Gulf, including that of vital shipping lanes for oil exports.

The GCC member states have agreed to share information and contribute personnel and military assets to the centre.

"The approval has been given from all the GCC leaders," said Sheikh Saeed bin Hamdan Al Nahyan, the Deputy Commander of the UAE Navy, on the sidelines of a three-day maritime security conference that ends today.

The centre was agreed to 18 months ago, Sheikh Saeed said, and was not in direct response to threats from Iran.

Lt Cdr Mubarak Ali Al Sabah, the chief of maritime operations for the Kuwaiti coastguard, said one focus would be to better protect Gulf shipping lanes, which are crucial for oil exports.

A new computerised exchange system is also being sought to provide automatic access to images, reports and other data shared by the coastguards of the member states - Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The nations now rely on phone calls and faxes, said Cdr Al Sabah. Sometimes more than a day went by without news to report, although the lines were tested daily.

Countries around the world sometimes resist sharing such information due to security or political sensitivities, but the lack of integration allows criminals to exploit communication gaps between borders.

Coastguard officials would not be able to check the history of a vessel entering from neighbouring waters. They would have to depend instead on peers across the border informing them.

Sharing information also helps the authorities understand the "pattern of life" at sea - where fishermen tend to congregate, which languages are usually spoken where, and what else counts as "normal" - so that suspicious activities are easier to spot.

"There is restriction in doing such an interconnection, because not everybody wants his neighbour to know what he is doing and what he is monitoring," said Adnan Sarhan, the director of engineering and operations at C4 Advanced Solutions, a local defence contractor that supplies maritime surveillance equipment.

"But we need at least the suspicious-behaviour vessel tracks to be delivered. People make mistakes but you're talking about an automatic system that is monitoring 24/7 … and giving immediately the information about everything moving in the sea."

A primary problem in the Gulf waters is drug traffickers, with GCC states busting an attempted smuggling about once every two to three weeks, sometimes involving a large haul of hashish or heroin, said Cdr Al Sabah.

Some of the drugs stem from a network that flows along the southern coast of Pakistan, and helps to finance extremist organisations.

After every bust the GCC nations share information about the incident and the lessons learnt, Cdr Al Sabah said.

Yet these governments would probably stop much more drug trafficking if they shared more information, he said.

Kuwait was able to crack down significantly on smuggling after it integrated its own surveillance system on various ships and along the coast.

GCC states receive information about the international waters in the Gulf as part of a naval coalition called the Combined Task Force 152, one of three task forces that operate under the 25-nation Combined Maritime Forces led by the United States and based in Bahrain.

CTF-152, established in 2008, patrols the international waters of the Gulf. Its task force member nations share information using the same computer system the GCC would adopt.

The Maritime Security and Surveillance conference, organised with support from the Higher Committee for UAE Civil Seaports and Airports Security, includes delegates from the US, United Kingdom, Nato, India and the Gulf.