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Playground of pirates
Strategic importance of Gulf of Aden and prospects of maritime trade

Incidents of maritime piracy in the Gulf of Aden have posed a significant strategic challenge for the security of global trade.

Despite a reduction in rampant pirate attacks in the ‘pirate-alley’ last year, the challenge is far from over. Piracy will remain a recurrent problem till the root cause of the problem is not tackled.

When piracy became rampant in 2008, flag states and international organizations added strategic value to the already important trade route which links the east with the west.

Countries realize that the ongoing problem at the Gulf of Aden provides ample opportunities to display their military might, their ability to act as hegemonic powers, especially to secure vital economic interests, and consolidate their claims of being superpowers with global ambitions.

Even though such heavy intervention has made a difference, the root cause of the problem, which lies in the instable conditions of coastal states on land, is not being tackled. In such light, military interventions remain futile and will only go so far, as they are not backed by law enforcement, social development and political will.

The Gulf of Aden is one of the most vital maritime trade routes because it is at this location where the volume of the world’s maritime trade and piracy are at its peak. By the sheer volume of trade that passes through from here, it is literally the backbone of maritime trade whose security is of utmost importance.

Located in the Arabian Sea, the Gulf lies between Yemen and Somalia and connects the Red Sea (through the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait) with the Indian Ocean. Further East, the waterway is a part of the important Suez Canal shipping route between the Mediterranean Sea and the Arabian Sea.

Important corridor

It is an important shipping route because 21,000 ships cross the Gulf annually. Approximately 14 per cent of daily global demand of crude oil passes through the Gulf everyday.

This makes it an important corridor, especially for the Persian Gulf oil headed for the west. The route is also important for the innumerable amount of goods that are traded between Europe, US and Asia.

The coastal states of Somalia and Yemen that surround the Gulf have been wrecked by clan based and sectarian violence.

Naturally, piracy flourishes because the region is described as a failed state, devoid of any well established law or stability. But piracy is a transnational problem which is local in operation but global in repercussions.

Because the region is so volatile, the cost of international trade has risen sharply to US $ 18 billion a year. In addition, anti-piracy missions cost an estimated US $2 billion annually.

The World Bank also estimated that at least US $385 million has been paid in ransoms to Somali pirates since 2005. Cost of shipping has risen further because of higher insurance payments and re-routing of vessels around Africa.

Despite dozens of warships and naval vessels that patrol the one million square miles of territory, pirates have managed to extend their activities to as far as near the Indian Coast.

Hence, neither does re-routing guarantee a safer route, nor does only military intervention solve the problem. Controversies have also begun to surround the use of onboard contract based armed security.  

Piracy has been a problem in other vital shipping lanes in the past, including the Strait of Malacca, but the increase in piracy in the Gulf of Aden is worrying because of its sophistication to the extent that it now seems to have crystallized itself into a well organized industry.

Following a civil war in 1991 that split the country into Somaliland, the autonomous state of Puntland and Somalia, the region has been in a downward spiral.

Piracy is thus a product of social and political chaos in a country that was wrecked by military rule, civilian wars, continued external interference and rampant criminal activities. Although the country is making efforts to get back on the track of development, it has considerable challenges to face.

Piracy has flourished in Somalia because it has all the favorable factors of political instability, lawlessness, favorable geography, conflict and disorder, acceptability and reward.

What may have initially started of as local fishermen turning into small time vigilantes looking to safeguard their interests in a low profile manner, has now grown into a full-fledged organized and acquitive industry.

What drove them towards this desperation is indeed external interference. During the civil war, there was a total state of lawlessness and anarchy. Foreign countries took advantage of this and naval vessels from Europe and Asia reached the tuna-rich Somali waters for commercial purposes.

The fishing was unauthorized. It is estimated that Somali fishermen lost US $100 million in 2004 because of this.

There were also reports of toxic waste dumping in Somali waters. Initially, it is said that the Somali fishermen attacked only such vessels with the intention of extracting either ransom or compensation.

Organized crime

But it wasn’t long before officials, warlords and the pirates themselves realized the lucrative nature of a pirate attacks. Hence, overtime it has turned into an organized crime. It is as good as an industry of its own.

The aim of pirate attacks is purely monetary. Albeit what is interesting is that while piracy has emerged from a society that is essentially lawless, anarchic and politically unstable, the act of piracy on the other hand, has an organized structure.

In such a scenario, what is apparent is that these anarchic groups that are facilitating successful pirate activities are themselves politically organized, but the society they live in, is not.

Anarchic groups cannot have logistical support systems in a lawless, destabilized society. Hence, this is a peculiar situation and the only explanation is that there is a deliberate attempt to maintain the instability.

On the flipside, it would not be a very plausible argument if one stated that the pirate industry in the Somalia region cannot be dismantled. Numerous reports explain clearly that pirates operate from the land. Without a proper system on land, they cannot possibly function at sea.

Why are the combat forces then taking so long to treat the root cause of the problem? Surely, military intervention is necessary at sea, but some intervention is also necessary on land. The answer is that there is a significant lack of will on part of many flag states to do so.

They would like their physical presence in the region not only because of critical maritime interests, but also their own personal interests.

The region is rich in oil, natural gases and seafood. At the same time, such a ground turns out to be a situation for countries to showcase their strategic allegiances and military might.

On the other hand, the internal political factor is also important. The majority of Somali piracy originates from the autonomous region of Puntland, the area that seeded from Somalia in 1998.

The criminals, warlords and political authorities are synonymous and are one in the same. Therefore, it is in the interest of the domestic actors that piracy continues simply because it is a lucrative business.

Although the quarterly report by the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) confirmed that pirate attacks off the Somali Coast have declined by more than 54 percent, the problem remains far from over.

Military intervention has contained the attacks, but the will to attack still remains. Unless the root of the problem, of which piracy is only a symptom, is not addressed, the attacks will indeed resurface.

Currently, several warships patrol the territory, with the European Union Naval Force anti-piracy operation including ships from the UK Royal Navy and EU country members, as well presence from the US Navy, Russia, India, Japan, China and NATO.

Indeed aggressive patrolling by international naval combined forces has limited Somali Piracy. In the last three months, there were only 5 attempts and 1 successful hijacking. This is a far cry from 2008, when piracy was at its peak with 28 hijackings and 237 attempts.

But even then, the success in limiting piracy in the Gulf of Aden is only short lived, because the tactics deployed are unlikely to have a permanent impact. Military intervention only deters attacks from taking place.

It doesn’t deter the pirates from not wanting to attack at all. The solution of the problem posed by piracy only lies in cleaning up the social and political mess in the country.

Maritime initiatives

The drop in attacks was largely due to multinational maritime initiatives, private on board security and improved preventive measures used by the crews of merchant vessels.

The point is that if any of these efforts to combat piracy are limited; say by a reduction in military-naval presence, the number of attacks would quickly rise.

A European naval mission, Atlanta, is supposed to end in December 2014, after already been extended.

Though many Asian countries are now actively participating in anti-piracy operations because they recognize the importance of securing their interests, what is actually required is an ongoing challenge to the very backbone of the pirate industry which is onshore.

Besides, most of the countries that have deployed their naval forces in the Gulf of Aden derive their justification from additional strategic interests.

While India has always been keen to display its military might to Pakistan and is now looking for ways to prove itself worthy of being a responsible international actor, China is trying to assert its control in Africa, commensurate with its expansion policy.

Meanwhile, countries like US and UK are seeking to secure their interests of oil exploration. Even Iran is strategically using the waterway to disperse arms to its allies in Africa.

An additional problem is the almost confirmed links between the pirates and the Al-Shabab group.

Because of such a nexus, pirates are increasingly become a part of arms trafficking in the area. This further contributes to violence in Somalia. Although pirates do not have a political agenda like the terrorists, a possible nexus is dangerous.

Indeed there is some hope as the new Somalia government is slowly improving its capacity to fight piracy. The officials are incorporating anti-piracy operations and campaigns and employment opportunities.

But the real test will start next year, when the international naval forces are expected to slowly leave the Gulf.

The idea that military force can alone challenge the pirate problem is wrong and short lived. Good governance and diplomacy are just as important. Piracy is a political and economic problem and cannot be dealt by military might alone.

It requires long term political and economic policies along with a comprehensive strategic framework. Efforts must be made to deter the pirate leaders and warlords politically. A three tier approach should also be put in place-policing, law enforcement and finally political efforts.

Pirates have also got used to large sums of money and there thirst will not quench so easily. Economic transition in Somalia in this regard will be very challenging but vital to ensure that prospective vigilantes do not resort to crimes like piracy again.

Also, while piracy has gone down in the Gulf of Aden, it has resurfaced in the Gulf of Guinea. Such ripple effects are likely to occur.

Piracy is inextricably linked to the political and economic mess in Somalia. It has far reaching consequences not only for the world economy, but also for the strategic interests of many countries.

Thus because piracy is a transnational problem, the flag states, which are many in a highly globalized world have a very important role to play.

Other potential tactics such as systematically disrupting financing for pirates, addressing the lack of a global standard on the payment of ransoms, and following money trails could be useful. Such efforts also need to be joined with attempts to address the underlying causes of piracy.