Security

International maritime conference focuses on threats to tankers in Gulf

By Al-Mashareq

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The MT Mercer Street is seen off the port of Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates on August 3. On July 29, two crew members of the tanker were killed in what was determined to be a drone attack off Oman. [Karim Sahib/AFP]

The International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC) held its third stakeholders' conference late last month, focusing on the threats that tankers face while navigating in the Arabian Gulf and other nearby waters.

The threats stem mainly from malign state actors, the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen and piracy.

The IMSC, which was established in November 2019, includes eight member nations: Albania, Estonia, Bahrain, Lithuania, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Its operational arm, the Coalition Task Force (CTF), maintains "freedom of navigation, international law, and the free flow of commerce to support regional stability and security of the maritime commons".

The industry-focused conference, with a theme of partnering for better outcomes, featured speakers from the US Maritime Administration (MARAD) and INTERTANKO, an organisation that promotes safe transport for merchant tankers, cleaner seas and free competition.

A number of recent incidents were discussed at the September 30 conference, which was held virtually from the US navy base in Bahrain.

They included the September 11 attack on Mokha city, Yemen, in which the Houthis fired missiles and explosives-laden drones at the key Red Sea port in the city, destroying warehouses of food that belonged to traders and humanitarian agencies working on Yemen's western coast.

The conference also covered the August 4 attempted hijacking of the MV Asphalt Princess tanker by suspected Iranian-backed forces who boarded the vessel and ordered it to sail to Iran.

The incident ended after one day, with the suspects leaving the vessel when US and Omani ships arrived.

Participants discussed a drone attack on the MT Mercer Street off the port of Fujairah on July 29, which killed the ship's Romanian captain and a British security guard.

The US military on August 6 concluded that Iran was behind the attack.

Also reviewed was the January seizure of the South Korean tanker Hankuk Chemi by the Iranian navy as it transited the Strait of Hormuz. The tanker was seized as Iran sought the release of Iranian funds frozen in South Korean banks. The ship was released four months later.

Security work

Vice Adm. Brad Cooper, commander of US Naval Forces Central Command, US 5th Fleet and Combined Maritime Forces, opened the conference by highlighting the role of the IMSC's operational task force in promoting security and freedom of navigation in the Arabian Gulf.

"Ships under Coalition Task Force Sentinel have been busy conducting countless overwatch transits through critical chokepoints because this is important work," he said.

"Successfully preventing aggression against member-nation merchant traffic is critical to maintaining regional security and stability."

For example, between March 30 and July 26, the Task Force's accomplishments included overwatch patrol on more than 960 IMSC-flagged merchant vessels that transited both the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, incident-free, carrying 400 million tonnes of cargo.

As government agencies continue to explore ways for alerting mariners to threats, industry must continue to manage the wide-ranging impacts of maritime incidents, participants said.

During his briefing, Dr. Phillip Belche, director of the Office of Maritime Security at MARAD and marine director of INTERTANKO, spoke about significant challenges the tanker industry faces in the Arabian Gulf.

He offered his assessment of how to address threats, vulnerabilities and risks.

"The tanker industry is a service industry; we go where our customers need, but service doesn't mean subservient, and we have to look at how we manage and own the risk, but it needs to take an intelligent approach to risk," he said.

Most threats are external to the industry, but vulnerabilities are still directly owned by tanker companies, Belcher noted.

Types of threats could include state actors, rebel forces in Yemen, piracy, the so-called tanker war and even refugee or migrant crises, Belcher said.

IMSC commander Royal Navy Cdre. Gordon Ruddock said the IMSC would continue its vital work with industry partners to promote and protect the free flow of commerce through regular communication and continued partnership.

The "IMSC is committed to refining industry and coalition relationships, cultivating new partnerships, and forging ahead with its maritime security operations", said Ruddock.

"I ask for your commitment to help our task force units identify, document, and respond to activity you may consider to be out of place or a physical threat to normal business," he said to participants.

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