Arab countries meet to tackle Somali pirate threat

Egypt hosted Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Sudan, Yemen, and the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia on Thursday in a bid to protect valuable maritime trade routes from pirates.

This week's capture of a Saudi supertanker by Somali pirates sent a chill through international shipping and turned up the heat on politicians and businessmen across the region.

On Thursday, diplomats from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Sudan, Yemen, and the Transitional Federal Government of Somalia met in a closed-door meeting in Cairo to share their concerns over the possible effects of piracy on much-needed shipping and trade.

But government officials and independent analysts agree that, without efforts by North American, European, and Asian countries, there is little that the Arab states that border the Red Sea can do to defend their economic interests from the lawlessness leaking out of Somalia.

"To resolve the problem we are under no illusions that the Red Sea countries can solve a problem that exists outside the Red Sea," says Hossam Zaki, a spokesman for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry.

He says the meeting was meant to "coordinate thinking and ideas" among the countries of the Red Sea region. Options for future action were said to include setting up a piracy monitoring center, joint maneuvers by Arab navies, and warning systems, although few specifics were immediately available.

Firms consider rerouting ships

Earlier in the day, major international shipping firm A.P. Moller-Maersk announced plans to reroute some of its fleet around South Africa's Cape of Good Hope to avoid the possibility of pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden. Norway's Frontline, another large shipping company, said it was "definitely considering," doing the same.

"We haven't done it yet. We are definitely considering it. It's possible," Martin Jensen told Reuters. "Of course, like many in the industry, we are instructing all our ships to call as close to Yemen and as far from Somalia as possible."

Last weekend's hijacking of the Sirius Star tanker jolted Arab leaders and global shipping firms to attention. The ship was travelling from Saudi Arabia to the United States via the Cape of Good Hope when it was seized about 450 nautical miles off the coast of Kenya. It was carrying a full load of oil, roughly equivalent to one-fourth of Saudi Arabia's daily output, worth $100 million.

Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told reporters in Rome on Wednesday that the ship's owners, Dubai-based Vela International Marine Ltd., were talking to the pirates, who have demanded $25 million in ransom.

Arab countries concerned about trade

Thursday's closed-door meeting in Cairo underscores the degree to which the Arab states of the Red Sea region feel threatened by the increasingly daring pirate attacks and their increasingly valuable targets.

Analysts say there is also concern over the pirates' suspected ties to Islamist groups active in Somalia, including Al Qaeda.

"To really solve this problem, the international community must search for stability and economic and political development in Somalia," says Nabil Abdel Fattah, assistant director of Egypt's Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

"These Arab countries need international support – diplomatically, militarily, and economically," he adds.

Writing in the Saudi pro-government daily Al Watan, Jamal Ahmad Khashikji, a columnist, said that the seizure of the MV Sirius Star was a game changer that struck at the heart of Saudi concerns about Somalia.

He called on Arab and Islamic states to consider military action against pirates, saying the hijacking was tantamount to an attack on Jeddah, Saudi Arabia's business capital.

"But Somalia is part of our national security environment and 'failing countries' are an evil that infects all their neighbours," Mr. Khashikji wrote.

"Terrorism, weapons, and illegal immigration are all sources of regional concern and anxiety, but they could have been ignored up until this week, which witnessed the hijacking of the Saudi oil supertanker and a failed attack on another Saudi freighter."

The Jeddah-based Arab Daily News also called for a strong response against the hijackers on Thursday, writing in an editorial: "It is not exaggeration that the Kingdom's very economy is at stake here – as well as that of other Gulf states."

For Egypt, whose economy relies heavily on tolls paid for travelling through the Suez Canal, it is of paramount importance that shipping companies continue to see the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea as safe routes. Nearly 8 percent of world trade passes through the waterway, and it is Egypt's third-largest source of foreign currency. In the first half of 2008, it collected $2.6 billion from 10,497 ships.

"The Red Sea is definitely open for business," says Mr. Zaki. "It is clean of any pirate activity and we plan on keeping it as clean as possible, and we want to work with the international community to keep it that way."

Caryle Murphy reported from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

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