The pirate attacks on commercial vessels in waters off Somalia, in the Indian Ocean, and off the coasts of the Arabian Peninsula, have been growing steadily rarer. But the problem is not solved.
As The National reported on Sunday, the UAE-owned tanker MV Royal Grace, with its crew of about 20 men, was released last week after a full year as a hostage. The release followed payment of a ransom, amount not disclosed.
The incident stands out because such cases have become much rarer of late. Nato's Shipping Centre reported just two pirate attacks on commercial ships in regional waters in January this year, neither successful. There were four attacks in January 2012, and 30 in January 2011.
There are good reasons for the improvement. The 27-nation Combined Maritime Forces flotilla has become a useful deterrent. Shipowners are pursuing best practices to minimise the risk of a hijacking, notably by putting armed guards on board. The Regional Anti-Piracy Prosecution and Intelligence Coordination Centre, in the Seychelles, funded by the UK, is now coordinating information about the threat. The Seychelles are also the site of court trials for those arrested at sea in piracy cases. The UAE has supported the Seychelles government with ships and equipment to fight piracy.
Then there is the situation onshore. Military assistance, mainly from the African Union, has helped the Somali government push Al Shabaab extremists out of coastal cities. Real governance is beginning to return to areas that were pirate havens. But as Abdi Farah Shirdon, the Somali prime minister, noted in The National this week, his country needs time to build strong antipiracy institutions. Stability should help create conditions for good honest jobs in Somalia, but this too will take time.
All these developments together are good news in the antipiracy effort, but there is certainly no room for complacency. There may be compelling reasons to pay a ransom, but every such payment can tempt more young men into the pirate life.
The solution to this dilemma is prevention, a point Royal Navy Commodore Simon Ancona, deputy commander of the Combined Maritime Forces, made last month when he urged continued vigilance - by crews, shipowners, protection forces and governments. After all, nobody has to pay a ransom on a ship that pirates have not been able to seize.