UAE set to turn the focus on piracy

Attacks at sea, particularly off the coasts of Africa, cost the maritime industry billions a year. While in some areas the problem is diminishing, it is far from solved. A conference in the Emirates aims to highlight the issues.

Dutch marines board a Yemeni fishing boat in the Gulf of Aden, which had been captured by Somali pirates. The world's navies are taking a more proactive role in tackling piracy in the region. AP Photo / Defense Ministry Netherlands
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Piracy costs the shipping industry about US$18 billion a year, according to a report by the World Bank.

It was the seizing of a Greek ship called Irene in 2009, off the coast of Somalia, that alerted the world to the escalating piracy problem in east Africa. The ship was carrying 2 million barrels of Kuwaiti oil bound for the United States - equivalent to a fifth of the country's daily oil imports - and was attacked off the coast of Somalia, astonishing the shipping industry.

Today, the UAE is at the forefront of tackling the scourge of piracy in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden.

The Emirates' Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Dubai's global ports operator DP World and the Abu Dhabi Ports Company (ADPC) on Wednesday announced they would co-convene the third international counter-piracy conference in Dubai on September 11 and 12.

At this year's conference Captain Juwaid Saleem, a former captive of pirates in Somalia, and his family will relate their experiences.

Capt Saleem and his Pakistani crew were aboard their ship Albedo when they were hijacked by Somali pirates as they sailed towards Kenya in November 2010.

"The pirate boat came somewhere around this area … they had their own ladder, a steel kind of ladder," Capt Saleem told Voice of America, the US state broadcaster.

Overpowered by armed pirates, Capt Saleem surrendered.

He and his crew spent the next 20 months living in difficult, exposed conditions as hostages in Somalia.

"We were in the bushes and we were exposed to bare nature, there was no shelter, no shade provided, no canopy provided, all our skin was scorched," said Capt Saleem.

After a year and eight months, he and six of his Pakistani crew members were freed after a group of Pakistani doctors raised a $1 million ransom.

"That was the happiest moment of my life, for my family, to see them, and they were too glad to see me," he said.

The remaining 15 crew members are still missing in Somalia.

Ransom payments, which averaged $150,000 a year in 2005, had jumped to $5.4 million a year by 2010, according to Oceans Beyond Piracy, a project of the One Earth Future Foundation, a privately funded and independent non-profit US organisation.

According to Lloyd's of London since 2007, almost 4,000 seafarers have been held hostage. Each year, about 20,000 different ships transit the Gulf of Aden placing 300,000 seafarers at risk of pirate attack.

A third of the world's oil passes through the area that the Combined Task Force (CTF) has responsibility for, covering more than 6 million square kilometres, including the Gulf of Aden, Gulf of Oman, the Arabian Sea, Red Sea and the northern Indian Ocean.

The CTF is comprised of warships from numerous coalition nations. Contributors have included Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Japan, Malaysia, Pakistan, Singapore, the UAE, UK, and US. The joint hosting of the conference in Dubai will highlight the importance of public and private sector coordination in the fight against maritime piracy both on and offshore.

Countering piracy requires effective security initiatives, including co-ordination between international navies and merchant vessels and longer-term initiatives that support the development of local economies.

"While the international community has made great strides in fighting piracy off the coast of Somalia, the UAE believes that maritime piracy, notably in the Gulf of Aden and the western Indian Ocean, remains a serious global concern," said the Foreign Minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed.

Sultan Ahmad Al Jaber, the chairman of ADPC, said although incidents of piracy had fallen, it was still a serious problem.

"Counter piracy remains a top priority for the emirate as maritime security is an important factor in the economic growth of the GCC region.

"While much has been achieved through the last two conferences and the number of incidents has dropped - the pirate groups still exist, the threat is still present and the devastating human consequences of pirate attack or armed robbery at sea still remains," he said.

That human devastation was brought home in the US this month with the jailing for life without parole of three Somali men.

In 2011 the three men and 18 others attacked and seized the 17.5 metre sloop Quest off the coast of south-east Africa, before killing the four retired Americans - two men and their wives - they found on board.

The trio were found guilty after a trial for piracy in Norfolk, Virginia, the home of a US Navy base.

Although Somali piracy has fallen to its lowest levels since 2006, violent piracy and armed robbery off the coast of west Africa is a growing concern.

Worldwide, the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) piracy reporting centre recorded 138 piracy incidents in the first six months of this year, compared with 177 incidents for the same period last year.

Seven hijackings have been recorded this year, compared with 20 in the first half of last year. The number of sailors taken hostage also fell dramatically; down to 127 this year from 334 in the first six months of last year.

"The main reason for the decline has been the security provided by the naval fleets, but also owners have been more alert and have followed best management practices. Many now use armed security guards," says Neil Roberts, a senior executive at the Lloyd's Market Association, which represents underwriters.

"The pirates have also lost two to three ports in Somalia and the Kenyan army has pressured southern Somalia," he adds. But while the picture looks better in Somalia, in the Gulf of Guinea the IMB reports an increase in armed attacks and robbery.

This is a new cause for concern in a region where there has long been a threat of piracy, as well as attacks against vessels in the oil industry and theft of gas oil from tankers.

"There has been a worrying trend in the kidnapping of crew from vessels well outside the territorial limits of coastal states in the Gulf of Guinea," says Pottengal Mukundan, the director of the IMB.

The IMB says incidents are happening much further from the shore than has been typical, too, as much as 1,450km off the Nigerian coastline in one case.

Armed pirates in the Gulf of Guinea took 56 sailors hostage and were responsible for all 30 crew kidnappings reported so far this year. One person was reported killed and at least another five injured. Attacks off Nigeria accounted for 22 of the region's 31 incidents and 28 of the crew kidnappings.

West African pirates tend to be land-based criminals, mostly from Nigeria, who look to steal the cargo and any valuables they can find in a quick grab-and-dash operation, often staying on board for less than a week.

"In Nigeria, money moves quite quickly unlike in Somalia. In Somalia, it would take months. In Nigeria, the pirates take our [oil] cargo and the money of the [shipping] company. It would take only weeks, it is quite fast," a seafarer is quoted as saying in a report titled the Human cost of Piracy 2012 - published in June by a trio of organisations that work in this field, including IMB and Oceans Beyond Piracy.

In June, the heads of the west and central African countries signed a new code of conduct designed to stamp out piracy and armed robbery of ships in the region.

"This should be translated soon into action on the water," Mr Mukundan says.

"If these attacks are left unchecked, they will become more frequent, bolder and more violent."