Industry Focus: Are Middle East cruises safe?

How safe is the Middle East cruise industry? This is a question that many cruise passengers no doubt wonder when they consider taking a cruise in the region…

More to the point, how safe are Americans, British and other expat communities cruising in the Gulf?

For many, US State Department travel warnings and travel alerts for American nationals living or travelling overseas may seem like paranoia, but the fact remains that Americans are often the primary target of terrorist activity, and other western nationals are singled out because of other European and western countries close political ties with the United States.

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While many cruise industry observers in the US have been watching the progress of the Cruise Passenger Protection Act, a US Senate Bill that, if passed, will require cruise companies operating out of US ports to report the various crimes committed aboard their ships, here in the Middle East we’ve been more concerned with a recent US blanket travel alert suggesting terrorist groups may be targeting western interests in the Middle East. The alert comes just a few months after Royal Caribbean announced they were pulling their ships from the Gulf due to a lack of demand, no doubt fueled in part by regional security and political stability issues.

Dubai maritime authorities have conducted extensive incident response simulations in preparation for the 2013/14 winter cruise season, the most recent aboard Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas

However, while an excellent report by The Maritime Executive rightly points out that the marine industry and cruise ships in particular are a significant target for terrorist groups, one should keep in mind the fact that there have been no terrorist attacks on any cruise liners since the Achille Lauro tragedy, in which a disabled American man was killed by PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organisation) militants when they hijacked the cruise liner in 1985 in the Gulf of Aden. Today, and especially in recent years, the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean waters along the coast of East Africa in general remain the hunting ground of Somali pirates, but there is no historical evidence to suggest a cruise in the Arabian Gulf is less safe than any other region of the world.

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However, a news report out of Cyprus last year does give cause for thought, and reminds one why the cruise industry need to stay on top of security procedures. Reportedly, suspected terrorists with links to Hezbollah were planning to target Israeli cruise ships visiting the Mediterranean Island. The plot was foiled by Cypriot security forces and 100 grams of a powerful explosive was seized in the popular port city of Limassol. Another news report in 2012, by CNN was even more alarming, detailing Al Qaeda plans to target cruise ships in Europe in gun attacks similar to those carried out against the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai in 2008. Thankfully, such attacks never materialized, and would have been difficult to pull off given the high-security nature of most port facilities across Europe. More importantly, no clear evidence has ever been reported suggesting militant or terrorist groups were actively planning to target cruise liners in the Arabian Gulf. It remains one of the safest bodies of water in the world, because it is highly trafficked by naval patrols due to the pivotal role the Strait of Hormuz (connecting the Arabian Gulf to the Indian Ocean) plays in world trade.

The Dubai Cruise Terminal is the busiest in the region, authorities expect the local cruise tourism market to double in the next seven years from 420,000 cruise visitors in 2013 to 1 million by 2020

Gerry Northwood OBE, Chief Operating Officer of maritime security firm Gulf of Aden Group Transits (GoAGT) told The Maritime Executive that, “The resurgence of Al-Qaeda and affiliate organisations is occurring alongside some of the worlds’ most strategically vulnerable and crowded waterways. The largely unforeseen consequence of the Arab Spring is that it has given terrorists groups a new lease of life and the means to do real harm to maritime activity in the Mediterranean, the Suez Canal and at other key strategic choke points.” He added that, “the cruise liner industry provides Al-Qaeda with another opportunity to hit targets where the casualty numbers could be in the thousands.” Which is why cruise liners have security procedures and systems in place designed to prevent such incidents. It is also why cruise lines have cancelled in droves their port calls at countries in the region that are suffering from widespread instability, which might compromise security and policing. In fact, cruise lines cancelling stops in Egypt due to security concerns are in many cases repositioning their ships to Dubai.

There isn’t a single mass transport industry in the world, from airplanes and commuter trains to cruise liners and busses, that has not at some point become a target for terrorists somewhere in the world. However, statistics suggest that, in terms of the number of attempted attacks on cruise liners versus other forms of mass transport, it remains one of the safest industries in the world.

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