Somali pirates are increasingly venturing north to the Omani coast and the key shipping lanes of the northern Indian Ocean, and the Omani port of Salalah has seen record numbers of visitors as pirate hunters and security firms use it as a base.
Pirate hunters on the lookout means good business for Salalah
SALALAH // Southern Oman does not typically see many visitors, but so far this year the Oasis Club, a weathered restaurant and bar overlooking the local port here, is enjoying record sales, and the nearby Hilton says bookings are up 80 per cent.
Most of these guests are pirate hunters of one sort or another, less interested in sampling the city's fabled frankincense than they are with keeping a watchful eye on the armed skiffs that now roam up and down the Omani coast.
The International Chamber of Commerce last month reported that piracy attacks are at an all-time high, with more than 140 in the first quarter alone. What concerns shipping companies active in the Gulf, though, is that most of the attacks are far from the traditional danger zones along the east coast of Africa and the Gulf of Aden. As a result of improved technology and the prospect of ever-higher ransoms, pirates are increasingly venturing north to the Omani coast and the key shipping lanes of the northern Indian Ocean.
Peter Ford, chief executive of the Port of Salalah, said: "This entire area is in the red zone."
For proof, one only needs to look around the port. Not long ago, Salalah hosted international military ships a couple of times a month. Now it is not unusual to see multiple vessels berthed at once, thanks to the stepped up of patrols by naval task forces in the region. And many of the "yachtees", as the locals call the recreational boaters who stop in for a few weeks at a time, have not yet headed out for the summer because they are waiting for fellow travelers with whom they can form a convoy.
Then there are the growing number of private security companies that use Salalah as a base to ferry armed guards out to commercial ships before they reach the most dangerous waters.
Philip Batty, chief operating officer for Maritime Asset Security and Training, a London-based firm with staff in Salalah, said: "Business is booming at the moment, especially in Oman."
But whatever economic benefits are being felt on land, they pale in comparison to what is stake at sea.
All told, pirates took 1,181 hostages last year and reportedly cost the global economy as much as $12 billion (Dh44bn). The average ransom paid is now more than $4 million.
The northern migration of the pirates is due in part to the impact of a heavily patrolled "International Recommended Transit Corridor" created through the Gulf of Aden two years ago. There have been no successful attacks in the corridor since October.
Yet, like squeezing a balloon, the efforts in the Gulf of Aden did not stop pirate attacks but only pushed them farther out into the Indian Ocean. This is especially frightening to oil-exporting countries in the Gulf, as roughly one-fifth of the world's daily oil shipments pass through the Strait of Hormuz and into the northern Indian Ocean.
"It has gone from a very tight area of operations and has expanded massively," said Lt Neel Singh, of Combined Maritime Forces, a 25-nation task force created to protect shipping lanes in the region.
In fact, some of the security companies who located in Salalah because it was considered the last safe port of call for ships heading from the Gulf to Europe or the US have lately moved operations even farther north to Muscat.
This expansion was one of the reasons the UAE, in partnership with ports operator DP World, organised and hosted a two-day conference last month in Dubai.
It concluded with a pledge from the UAE to commit $1.4m to a United Nations fund supporting anti-piracy initiatives, part of a total $5m raised at the conference.
But most in the industry have little confidence that the problem will be getting better anytime soon.
"All of our customers are nervous," said Kutaiba al Hatmy, marketing and communications officer for the Salalah port.
The human dangers of piracy are not a mere abstraction in Salalah. The port is frequently the drop-off point for hostages after ransoms have been paid. And Richard Phillips, the captain of the Maersk Alabama who was taken hostage and eventually rescued by US Navy Seals, was a weekly caller here and a regular at the Oasis Club before his ship was taken.
There is a growing sense that the conflict will grow more violent. Pirates are commonly equipped with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades, and shipping companies are increasingly countering with armed guards. Analysts say no ship with armed guards has ever been successfully hijacked.
Rajeev Erath, operations manager in Salalah for Inchcape Shipping Services, said weapons were not allowed on the company's ships as recently as 18 months ago. Now they are required.
"It is a concern for us. Anyone involved in shipping is no longer able to have a proper life," Mr Erath said.
These security measures are complicated by conflicting rules at Gulf ports about whether ships can bring weapons into harbor. And some analysts are concerned that shipping companies will ultimately be forced to hire guards with little training in how to combat an attack.
"The potential for serious escalation on both sides is considerable," said Martin Murphy, a visiting fellow at the Corbett Centre for Maritime Policy Studies at King's College, London. He said he feared the conflict could "turn the Indian Ocean into a war zone".
The Omani maritime department said it has appealed to the US Fifth Fleet, which is based in Bahrain, for additional help in dealing with pirates but has not yet received a response.
"Our coastal guards do not have enough boats to patrol our waters, considering Oman's coast stretches for 1,700 km," a spokesman for the Omani maritime department said.
Mr Singh, with the multi-national task force, said there are no specific plans to create corridors in the northern Indian Ocean similar to the one in the Gulf of Aden, noting that guarding the entire threatened area would "take hundreds and hundreds of warships".
However, he said the task force will broaden its patrols to cover all threatened shipping lanes. "As [the pirates] change their tactics, we will change ours," he said.
With additional reporting by Bradley Hope