Tide turns against pirates, for now

Piracy levels are falling dramatically in the waters around the Arabian Peninsula, but there are concerns it could quickly rise again if ships and navies drop their guard. Published in The Gulf, September 2013

On the morning of 4 March 2013 the Al Buhaira, a Liberian-registered oil tanker, was travelling through the Gulf of Aden, when four skiffs approached the ship from multiple directions. The ship’s master raised the alarm, and non-essential crew gathered in the ship’s secure citadel. As the skiffs got closer the ship’s security team fired warning shots at them and they stopped a few hundred metres away. A ladder which could be used to board the ship was spotted in at least one of the skiffs along with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

The incident had all the hallmarks of an impending piracy attack but this time the would-be hijackers retreated and the tanker remained safe. These days such an outcome is becoming more common. There is still plenty of suspicious activity, but the number of attacks is dropping fast. There were 75 attacks in the waters off Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden last year, according to the International Chamber of Commerce’s International Maritime Bureau (IMB), compared with 237 attacks the year before, and the number of hijackings fell from 28 in 2011 to 14 in 2012. This year the number of incidents has continued to fall.

The reduction has come as a result of some expensive naval deployments by countries determined to keep trade moving along the vital artery from the Indian Ocean though the Red Sea and Suez Canal and into the Mediterranean. In addition tankers, cargo ships and others have been refining their practices to deter successful attacks. Many now have armed security teams on board and use razor wire or high-powered water jets to make boarding at sea more difficult.

“It is a fact that no ship with an armed guard has ever been taken,” says Anthony Rix, a former rear admiral in the Royal Navy who is now maritime operations director at Salamanca Risk Management which supplies armed guards to some boats. “It’s not to say they haven’t been attacked, but the pirates want to live to see another day so they go elsewhere. You don’t need to fire your weapons, just holding them up is good enough.”

So far this year there have been five attempted attacks and two reports of suspicious vessels in the waters between the Bab el Mandeb Strait, at the southern end of the Red Sea, to the Strait of Hormuz in the east. There have also been two hijackings, with an Iranian fishing vessel and an Indian dhow both briefly seized.

Last year, by contrast, there were 15 attempted attacks and two suspicious incidents in and around the Bab el Mandeb alone, most of which happened in the first half of the year. There were a further 10 incidents in the Gulf of Oman and more than 30 incidents in the waters to the south of Oman and Yemen. In all there were 11 hijackings in the seas surrounding the Arabian Peninsula.

If this downward trend persists it may not be long before some people start to think the issue has been resolved. That idea unnerves some in the industry who warn of the dangers of shipping lines taking the issue less seriously or countries reducing naval deployments.

“It is a concern that we have,” says IMB director Pottengal Mukundan. “It is important that the navies remain, at least for another couple of years because there are actions they can take which no one else can do, like boarding suspected pirate vessels and the removal of weapons and pirate equipment on board these vessels. Private armed security or better practices on board ships is not going to deal with these problems. It is only the navies that can deal with this.”

Despite the escape of the Al Buhaira oil tanker in March, some boats are still captured, as the two hijackings in the Gulf of Aden so far this year demonstrate. The first incident was on 28 March when an Iranian fishing boat, the Saad 1, was hijacked and her 20 crew members taken hostage. Naval patrol vessels rescued the boat on the same day. A few months later, on 5 June, armed pirates attacked and hijacked the Indian dhow Sahi Faize Noori and its crew of 14 sailors, before abandoning it later that day for unknown reasons.

Dozens of less fortunate people continue to be held hostage, however. As of the end of June, Somali pirates were thought to be holding 57 crew members for ransom on four ships and a further 11 crew onshore. Four of those people have been held since April 2010 and seven since September 2010.

And while the pirates may have seen their activities curtailed they haven’t given up just yet. Vessels like the Saad 1 and the Sahi Faize Noori are often used by pirates as mother ships, allowing them to venture further out to sea where they use more nimble skiffs to attack their targets. Indeed, at a briefing in the US Defense Department on 19 July, Admiral Jonathan Greenert said he was concerned about signs of a rise in activity in the Gulf of Oman.

“We’re finding increased incidents of piracy, particularly in the northwest region of the Gulf of Oman,” he said. “I would call it an increasing trend, not yet as bad as the Gulf of Aden once was ... but it’s a concern that we need to keep our eye on.”

In the longer term the only real solution is to resolve the situation on the ground in Somalia, where the vast majority of pirates come from.

“Until matters ashore in Somalia are sorted out in terms of law and order, the establishment of things like coast guards and navies and fundamentally more attractive means of employment for what has been a generation of pirates then the situation is reversible,” says Rix. “At the moment it’s a matter of wait and see. There is no reason why the trend shouldn’t continue down. Equally, one shouldn’t be surprised if things took a turn for the worse and the trend started going upwards. A lot depends on how long the naval forces will remain.”