Nato general urges private-sector role for energy security

The hijacking of the Sirius Star in late 2008 by Somalian pirates marked a turning point in thinking about how to deal with global energy security threats.

The 1,000-foot supertanker, chartered from Dubai-based Vela International by Saudi Aramco, and its US$100 million cargo of Saudi Arabian crude oil, was en route to the US when it was captured by a rag-tag bunch of Somalian bandits in motorboats with AK47s, some 450 nautical miles southeast of Mombasa, Kenya.

The Sirius Star hijacking marked a “fundamental shift in the ability of pirates to be able to attack merchant vessels”, Nathan Christensen, the US Navy 5th Fleet spokesman, said at the time.

Despite the presence of naval vessels from a number of Nato countries in the area, there was little that could be done and the pirates released the tanker a few months after being paid a $3m ransom.

The Nato secretary-general at the time, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, laid out a number of measures, including the development of a global vessel monitoring system and new-design ships.

Soon after the Sirius Star, the European Union launched its first ever naval mission, Operation Atalanta, involving dozens of warships to try to provide security off the Horn of Africa, as part of a broader Nato effort.

The hijackings continued for several years but eventually declined from a peak of 47 encounters in 2010 to zero reported by the EU force over the past three years.

Such a huge effort to deal with perhaps no more than a few hundred lightly-armed men in skiffs.

But the threats to energy security have only grown and become more complex over the last few years, says General Sir Richard Shirreff, who was the top European Nato general until 2014.

As piracy died down in east Africa it rose in west Africa, where there have been a number of hijackings in the Gulf of Guinea this year, as well as hugely disruptive sabotage by militants in Nigeria.

Piracy is also a growing threat in Asia, with numerous attacks off Malaysia and Indonesia.

In the Arabian Gulf, there are rising risks because of the civil wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, the internal fragility of Saudi Arabia and the re-emergence of Iran after nuclear-related sanctions were lifted.

“It requires massive international effort and ambition to take it on and there is a role for the private sector here,” says Gen Shirreff.

Though Mr Scheffer had called for a dialogue between Nato and oil companies back in 2008, progress has been slow, in part because of the strict laws governing and limiting Nato.

“Yes, organisations like Nato have common funding and can act in multinational interest, but there are strict rules and overseas those costs will fall to the individual nations, so I think there is a role for the private sector,” Gen Shirreff says. “If you are an oil company operating in a difficult environment, your profits are going to be at jeopardy because of that fragility. We’re trying to get companies to think about it but taking such a strategic view is not straightforward. I don’t think we’re there yet.”

Gen Shirreff is quick to add that the thinking has to extend well beyond physical security.

“The whole thing about security is that it is not just about guns, gates and guards. Security is a moral concept. It is about the people with whom you are living and operating. The UAE is a secure environment but that comes from within. You have to address the root causes of conflict,” he says.

This means thinking about the broader issues of economic prosperity and equality, bribery, the environment.

“Also, it is about recognising the difficulty of radicalisation increasingly facing westerners in some of the more volatile parts of the Middle East,” he says. “Doing business through partners is one way you can manage those risks.”

The complexity of the Somalia situation is illustrative.

Conor Seyle and Jens Madsen of Dubai-based non-profit Oceans Beyond Piracy, which promotes private-sector efforts to combat international piracy, identify “three pillars” that developed into a complex network to deal with the Somali crisis: the Nato/EU naval effort, made possible by UN resolution and other legal measures; changes in management practice by shipping companies and their charterers; and multifarious efforts to address root causes of the piracy.

The private sector can be better placed to deal with the latter “soft” or “human” issues.

“Resolving these challenges requires different skills and capacities than hard security issues, as they frequently involve issues of development, education, provision of public goods and services, ethnic tensions and other tenets previously seen as being outside the purview of security,” Mr Seyle and Mr Madsen write in a new report.

“This has been a challenge to some security institutions hesitant to expand their hard security missions, but non-state actors are increasingly being identified as a way of extending system capacities to incorporate these skills.”

Private sector companies should also avoid the perception of backing sides in internal conflicts, as has been the case in the past with Chevron and Royal Dutch Shell in Nigeria, where paying local security forces in the delta region has associated them with the sometimes brutal treatment of local protesters.

“On the Nigeria point, you’ve got to avoid being seen as partial or funding hit squads but there are ways around that, such as using the [European Bank for Reconstruction and Development] or the World Bank and other such organisations in order to make sure there is a sufficient standoff,” says Gen Shirreff.

It is a difficult balancing act but one that cannot be avoided.

Anthony McAuley covers energy for The National.

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