Wed, 30 May 2012
By Conrad Prabhu — MUSCAT — The government-owned Oman Shipping Company (OSC) has invested in a number of measures to secure its expanding fleet of ships against piracy attacks, an official of a subsidiary entity said here yesterday. Capt Andrew Boyce, Senior Manager — Safety & Marine, Oman Ship Management Company, said the measures — although expensive — are a necessity to ensure the security of the country’s national fleet, now boasting 36 ships worth nearly $3 billion. Equally important, he said, is the need to safeguard the company’s Omani and multinational crew, some 600 of whom are at sea at any given time.
“We spend a lot of money training our people. We use external consultants and have them sail on our vessels. We run through mock drills and mock attacks, provide citadels (safe rooms) on our ships, bulletproof film on the windows, body armour, razor wire, communications, and so on. This involves a big expense, but there is no alternative,” Capt Boyce told delegates on the second day of the TransOman Conference at the Grand Hyatt Muscat.
In addition, the company spends significant sums on the deployment of private armed security guards on its vessels during sailings through piracy-prone waters. “As a result of the situation out there, we are spending about a million dollars every year on armed security guards, while our charterers are paying a factor of 8 or 9, or close to $10 million,” he said.
Speaking on the theme, ‘The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly — The Benefits, Problems and Dangers of Employing Armed Security Guards on Merchant Vessels’, the official delved into the commercial aspects of the impact of piracy on shipping companies like OSC.
He described private maritime security contracting as “big business”, an industry that’s expected to thrive as wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down. The challenge for shipping companies was to make the distinction between the ‘Rambos’ offering their services as armed guards for a hefty fee, and the reputable ones.
“There are over 200 companies in the business — ranging from a guy who gets a few of his buddies and some arms together — to really professional people. There’s a wide variety in quality between them. Some have no documentation, but some are very good indeed. It’s a constant challenge to differentiate between the two, and I need make sure the people I assign to my vessels are responsible, insured, trained, vetted, have the licenses, and know what they’re doing. It’s not easy.”
Earlier this year, OSC put in place guidelines to ensure that private security guards on board its vessels are properly vetted. In the legal “grey area” that ships operate while on the high seas, any unpleasant development involving the deployment of armed guards, will have potential consequences only for the ship owner and captain. Hence the need to make the right decision when it comes to selecting security contractors, he noted.
Capt Boyce used his talk to emphasise that armed guard deployments were not an antidote to piracy, but a supplement to the defensive and hardening measures that ships must have in place when sailing through piracy-prone waters. Experience has also shown that the presence of armed guards helps provide a measure of assurance to the crew on board when sailing routes take them through pirate infested seas.
But given the steep cost of hiring private armed guards to secure OSC’s fleet and crew, the company is now weighing the possibility to handing over this responsibility to Omanis, he said.
“OSC is in the early stages of talking with the Omani government about Omanising this business. Why should we have foreign nationals coming to Oman with weapons and sailing on government owned ships, and (repatriating their earnings) home? Why not have retired Omani (security) personnel doing this? It’s early stages, but it’s something we think could be very positive,” Capt Boyce stated.