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EGYPT: Anti-Piracy Flotillas Rattle Arab Security

Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani

CAIRO, Nov 28 2008 (IPS) - Representatives from states bordering the Red Sea met in Cairo last week to forge a common policy against the threat of maritime piracy. But some local commentators say recent deployments of foreign naval forces to the area to combat Somali corsairs could constitute an even greater threat.

“The stepped-up presence of foreign navies, supposedly here to protect international shipping lanes from piracy, could pose a danger to Arab national security,” Gamal Mazloum, retired Egyptian brigadier-general and military expert, told IPS.

In recent months, incidents of maritime piracy have suddenly proliferated, particularly in and around the Gulf of Aden off the coast of war-torn Somalia. This year alone, more than 80 ships have been attacked by pirates in the area, according to statistics from the International Maritime Bureau.

On Nov. 15, the MV Sirius Star, a Saudi-owned super-tanker laden with roughly 100 million dollars worth of petrol, was hijacked by Somali pirates off the nearby coast of Kenya. The 330-metre tanker, the largest vessel ever captured at sea, still remains in the hands of pirates who are demanding a hefty ransom for its release.

Only three days later, an Indian naval frigate reportedly destroyed a pirate ‘mother ship’ in the Gulf of Aden. According to Indian naval officials, the frigate – one of several foreign warships patrolling the area – destroyed the vessel after a heavy exchange of gunfire. Later reports indicated this was a hijacked Thai vessel.

Most recently, on Tuesday (Nov. 25), a Yemeni ship loaded with steel was reportedly hijacked in the Gulf of Aden.

In response to the problem, a number of foreign naval detachments have been deployed to the region. Along with India, the U.S., Russia, South Africa and the multinational North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) alliance have already sent naval forces to the Gulf of Aden with the stated aim of protecting maritime trade in the area.

In mid-November, the EU launched its first-ever joint naval mission – Operation Atalanta – with a mandate to combat piracy off the Somali coast. The operation, which will reportedly include frigates, patrol aircraft and helicopters, will have an initial deployment period of 12 months.

Even before the recent rash of piracy, foreign naval forces have had a significant presence in the area. For more than a decade, the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, based in Bahrain, has patrolled the waters in and around the Persian Gulf and Red Sea. Also, a western multi-naval force mandated with providing maritime security – ‘Combined Task Force 150’ – has been based in nearby Djibouti for the past several years.

Egypt, for its part, is especially concerned about piracy’s potential effect on its own Suez Canal, which links the Red Sea to the Mediterranean.

Transit fees from the vital waterway, which accounts for roughly 7.5 percent of annual global maritime traffic, represent one of Egypt’s chief sources of foreign currency. Due to rising incidents of piracy, a handful of major commercial shipping companies have already reportedly re-routed cargo away from the Suez Canal to South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope.

“Egypt could be adversely affected by piracy more than any other country,” Aymen Abdelaziz Salaama, professor of international law at Cairo University told IPS. “Canal transit fees – already feeling the effects of the global financial crisis – could be severely impacted if the problem persists.”

With the stated aim of establishing a common anti-piracy strategy, representatives from several Red Sea states gathered in Cairo on Nov. 20. Co-hosted by Egypt and Yemen, the conference was also attended by officials from Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Jordan, Somalia, Eritrea and Djibouti.

In a joint declaration, participants blamed the worrying phenomenon on political turmoil in Somalia, where an unpopular U.S.-backed central government is fighting an Islamist-led insurgency. “Piracy off the Somali coast is one of the consequences of the deterioration of the political, security and humanitarian situation in Somalia,” read the declaration.

The statement went on to call for joint anti-piracy naval operations by Arab states in the region and the creation of a piracy-monitoring centre based in Yemen. Although conference participants welcomed naval support from foreign nations, they stressed the importance of the national sovereignty of states in the region.

Independent commentators agree that Somalia’s chaotic political circumstances constitute a main cause of piracy.

“Piracy is a symptom of the real crisis, which is the disintegration of Somalia since 1991,” said Salaama. “The solution isn’t to send foreign navies to combat piracy, but to end the long-standing civil war in that country.”

Commentators also note, however, that the conference provided little in the way of concrete solutions to the problem.

“The conference, which was only organised after foreign ships were sent to the region, didn’t offer any new serious recommendations,” said Salaama.

Mazloum agreed. “Attendees declared that each country would do its best to provide security to its respective shoreline,” he said. “But this should go without saying.

“For more than a decade, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have run joint naval security exercises with the aim of protecting the Red Sea,” Mazloum added. “But they never established a viable joint naval force to fight piracy.”

Some regional leaders, meanwhile, have voiced fears that the stepped-up deployment of foreign naval forces to the area itself represents a potential threat to regional sovereignty.

“The intensive multinational military presence in the southern outlet of the Red Sea is worrying,” Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Kurbi was quoted as saying Nov. 10. He went on to warn that this presence could pose a threat to “Arab national security” and lead to the “internationalisation” of the Red Sea.

According to Mazloum, the Yemeni minister’s warning is not without some justification. He suggested the possibility that the piracy issue could be exploited by “foreign elements” with the aim of “internationalising the Red Sea region” to the benefit of the U.S. and Israel.

“In the 1980s, Israel proposed establishing a naval presence in the Red Sea, but the idea was quickly rejected by the Arabs and hasn’t been discussed since,” Mazloum explained. “But with this new outbreak of piracy, some analysts suspect that Israel will insist on dispatching naval forces to the area on the pretext of protecting commercial shipping.”

He went on to question the seeming inability of existing foreign naval flotillas to thwart rampant piracy in the region. “Foreign naval forces already in the area – the U.S. 5th Fleet, NATO, Force 150 – were all unable to stop the piracy,” he said. “And even after the latest deployments, incidents of piracy have only increased. This should raise questions.”

Salaama raised the question why Arab Red Sea states are unable to provide adequate maritime security.

“During the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Somalia successfully joined forces to close the Strait of Mandeb (between the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula) to Israeli shipping, while maintaining navigation in the Red Sea,” he said. “So why can’t they keep the area closed to Somali pirates?”

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