Ras al Khaimah // Walid Jumaa al Shehi, a fisherman, is a happy man. The cooling water is bringing an abundance of fish close to the shore. Many fishermen in this northern emirate steer away from deep waters of the Gulf, fearing harassment or even arrest from pirates or the Iranian navy.
How far a fisherman in Ras al Khaimah takes his boat into the Gulf depends on how much risk he is willing to take. Fishermen and a number of members of the Federal National Council say the problem is not widespread. Yet it affects the daily routine of many fishermen who tend to limit their fishing to narrow waters to avoid possible conflict. During the winter, fishing close to the shore is not a problem because fish are plentiful. But as the summer heat creeps in, most fish migrate into deeper and cooler waters, leaving fishermen to choose between safety and going after a good catch.
Mr al Shehi says Iranian pirates attacked one of his two boats a little over a month ago and stole his fishing gear, including the nets. They also took the phones of four Indian workers and the noukhadah, the lead-fisherman. "The noukhadah ran away and he didn't want to come back after the pirates attacked them," said Mr al Shehi as he stood last week in the wholesale fish market in Al Muairid fishing harbour.
"They beat the four Indian workers who didn't want to go fishing for three or four days because they were afraid." Mr al Shehi was not on the boat at the time. He was in Sharjah, where he works as a policeman with the Ministry of Interior. When he is not on duty, the 28-year-old joins his fishermen in one of the boats. On an average fishing trip which usually takes place overnight or from early hours of the morning until midday the two boats earn him between Dh5,000 (US$1,360) and Dh8,000, which he splits with the workers after deducting the running costs.
He said it was the only encounter his boats had ever had with Iranians. "I usually fish in the shallow water to avoid trouble," he said. "The pirates usually have 20-25 foot long, two-engine boats, they're armed and when they come they take everything in the boat." He said a friend from Umm al Qaiwain had a similar encounter a few weeks ago when pirates attacked the fishermen and stole their equipment and their global positioning system.
A report by an FNC committee dealing with the fisheries and presented to the chamber last month criticised what it called the Government's "weak role" in protecting fishermen against "stealing and damaging of fishing equipment, chasing of fishermen by pirates in neighbouring countries and harassment by some security services in neighbouring countries". Iran was the only nation cited as having obstructed fishing in the Gulf.
Abdullah al Shehi, a member of the FNC from Ras al Khaimah and member of the committee, said the reported harassment by the Iranian navy and pirates were not a regular occurrence, but he called for action nonetheless. "The demand is that the problem is looked at even though it's not a phenomenon yet, to avoid its development into a phenomenon," he said. Another member from RAK, Yousef Obaid al Nuaimi, said there were several cases of Emiratis and expatriates, mostly Indian workers, being arrested by the Iranian navy.
"The international waters are open for everyone whether Omanis or Qataris, everyone fishes there," he said, speaking from his office in RAK city. "They come fishing and we don't hold them, the international waters are not owned by Iran. "The Iranians now harass everyone. A month ago they arrested two Kuwaitis. They even arrest Asian workers." Fishermen said in most of the cases the Iranian navy officers hold them at gunpoint and ask them to leave although they are in international waters.
The Iranian embassy said no one was available for comment this week. UAE authorities could not be reached. Abdullah Sharif al Khader, the fish market's health inspector and owner of a fishing boat, said that four years ago he had an encounter with the Iranian navy. "As I was pulling out the gargur [a metal fishing net], I was taken by surprise when I saw an Iranian patrol ship next to me," he said.
"They pointed at us with their weapons and said go away. We were between 25 and 30 kilometres from the coast." The territorial waters of a country stretch to 12 nautical miles from its coastline, but the UAE has some islands and oil rigs beyond that boundary. A nautical mile is 1.85km. Given the narrow nature of the Gulf, delineating borders can prove hard in some areas such as the narrow Strait of Hormuz or in the northern tip of the Gulf where Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq and Iran have coasts.
Mr al Khader, 41, employs four Indian fishermen and serves as the noukhadah himself when they go fishing daily from 1am to 8am. "Most of the fishermen stay close to the shore because of being exposed to the stealing, it was the only time and I vowed not to go far into the water after it," he said. His boat is almost 10 metres long and fast, powered by two Yamaha engines, but he says he mostly stays within the UAE territorial waters.
Ahmed Mohammed al Mansouri, 63, owns three fishing boats. He says the problem is not only with the Iranian navy but also with navies of other Gulf countries such as Oman and Qatar, who levy hefty fines on fishermen if they sail close to their territorial waters. He said the fines were as much as Dh20,000, but the FNC members said it could be much more. "If it was an Indian they arrest him," said Mr al Mansouri as he disembarked his white boat with two Indian fishermen.
"If it was an Emirati, they would fine him, but sometimes they would hold him like my nephew who was held for 24 hours by the Omanis. "Once the Omani navy chased me but they couldn't catch me, my boat was fast," he said, smiling, before rushing to his pick-up truck to catch the afternoon prayer. Abdul Raheem Shaheen, another FNC member from Ras al Khaimah, was aware that other countries should take blame.
"The problem even exists among the GCC countries," he said, speaking from Mr Nuaimi's office. "If you cross the borders of Qatar for example you get in trouble; such problems shouldn't exist." The FNC report confirmed that the coast guards of other countries had been harassing fishermen in the Gulf of Oman despite the fishermen's assertion that they were within the UAE's territorial waters. Dr Shaheen said that the problems can be brought under control if the GCC states co-ordinate among each other and with the Iranian government.
"With such co-ordination a mechanism for co-operation can be found between these countries and Iran," he said. He added that the Iranian navy had no right to interfere with fishermen operating in international water. "The Foreign Ministry should have a role through the Emirates consulate in Bandar Abbas." Mr al Nuaimi lamented that Iranian pirates and the navy acted as they pleased. "If one Iranian boat is harassed, the Iranians won't remain silent," he said.