A regional solution to Gulf naval security

The commander of the UAE Navy says local forces should be in charge of ensuring safety but piracy 'continues to destroy' maritime stability.

Staff Brig Ibrahim al Musharakh, the commander of the UAE Navy, says the country is looking for a higher profile and active role in tackling piracy.
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ABU DHABI // Maritime security in the international waters of the Gulf should be in the hands of regional navies, said Staff Brig Ibrahim al Musharakh, the commander of the UAE Navy. In his first interview since taking command of the country's maritime forces in February, Brig al Musharakh said that the country's recent appointment to command the Combined Task Force (CTF) 152, a force under the US Fifth Fleet, is a step towards Gulf navies taking a leading role in the region's maritime security.

Brig al Musharakh said the UAE is also looking for a higher profile in tackling piracy, an issue that is "close to home". The commander would not set a deadline but said that "at some stage" a combined command centre should be established for a regional security force taking over from CTF 152, or command should rotate among Gulf nations. "With the co-operation and co-ordination between regional countries, this task force should be handed over," he said, adding that the task force need not be made up of only regional navies, although they should be in command.

"We believe that as the Gulf is part of our waters we should always be in charge of the operations that are carried out here," Brig al Musharakh said. "The region depends on the Gulf in matters of life; all our imports and exports go through these waters. There's no doubt that the Gulf is of vital importance for the security of the country." CTF 152, which includes US, UK and GCC vessels, is responsible for keeping the waters safe and combating the smuggling of people and drugs. One of its stated aims is to assist in training and the building of regional navies.

"The maritime domain is an international domain. After 12 miles it belongs to the world, so co-operation is essential in achieving maritime security," he said. After three months at the helm of CTF 152, the UAE's command was extended for an additional three months in February, and will be passed on to Kuwait on May 9. "It's a success that it's transferring from GCC to GCC," said Col Tariq al Zaabi, the commander of the fleet and CTF 152. "We believe that we've reached a stage of better interaction."

Col al Zaabi said that he believed the UAE's role at the head of the task force has helped to encourage some regional navies to participate. Qatar, which is not part of the coalition, agreed to send its coastguard to participate in a major training exercise in January; Saudi Arabia took an observatory role. He said that being in charge of a multinational task force has been one of the most challenging tasks for the UAE Navy.

"We all have different communications, different rules of engagement, different interests, different capabilities and you have to work out how you are going to use all of this as one force," Col al Zaabi said. The UAE does not yet take part in CTF 151, the task force that tackles piracy in the Gulf of Aden. But Brig al Musharakh said he sees a more active role in the future. "Piracy jeopardises the interests of the country and the UAE Navy is obviously in the forefront to protect these interests," he said. "In the future, yes, we should be able to be actively involved in combating piracy. This is in the interest of the country."

He said an Arab counter-piracy force that would patrol the Gulf of Aden is also being talked about. "There is some discussion on forming not a GCC but an Arab force, an Arab maritime force, to operate in the area where piracy takes place," he said. "All the Arab countries and regional countries have the capabilities to be actively involved in combating piracy but planning takes time." The UAE, Bahrain, Djibouti, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen have been involved in the discussions. Piracy "continues to destroy" the stability of the Gulf and has a negative effect on commercial shipping, Brig al Musharakh said.

Dr Theodore Karasik, the director of research for the Institute of Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai, said a pan-Arab force is exactly what is needed to help tackle piracy. "The regional countries need to start up their own group so that they are taking care of the situation themselves," he said. "The international forces serve a major purpose as a Band-aid but the real solution is an Arab force."

Dr Karasik said that regional navies completely taking over security in the Arabian Gulf may not be feasible in the near term, but a structure where they took the lead and foreign navies only provided a supporting role would "be the ideal". lmorris@thenational.ae