Is Cruising to the Middle East Safe?

Bloomberg published an article today titled Why the Cruise Industry Is Booming in the Middle East.

The lighthearted article casually mentions that passengers on the "fancy, all-inclusive Seabourn Encore were enjoying martinis and opera around the pool" off the coast of Somalia "where pirates occasionally hijack cargo ships" when an alarm sounded indicating that a small motorboat approached their cruise ship. "Onto the cruise ship climbed several burly security guards with cases of 'conventional weapons,' which would provide, as the captain explained, an added layer of protection for a potentially tricky passage."

The article states  that a week later, near Abu Dhabi, another alarm sounded, signaling the arrival ofMiddle East Cruise another boat. The small boat was stocked with tins of caviar and champagne for the cruise ship guests to enjoy "in the warm surf of a private beach."

The rest of the article didn't mention the risk of encountering pirates, and there was no mention of the danger of terrorism. Instead, the article was filled with stories of wonderful exotic getaways into Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Muscat where, the articles says, luxury travelers from an Azamara cruise ship on an excursion ashore spent "a night in Louis Vuitton tents set up in a Bedouin community in the desert."  The publication also talks about visiting "opulent mosques and labyrinthine souks" and enjoying camel rides in the desert as part of the cultural immersion and authentic experiences of the Middle East.   

The article characterized the Middle East as a "goldmine" in the eyes of the cruise lines, given the lucrative excursions and the cruise lines' ability to move their European fleets to the Middle East in winter.  

But the article misses the mark by ignoring the risk of cruise ship passengers being victims of terrorism.   

Several dozens of cruise passengers from cruise ships operated by MSC and Costa were slaughtered by terrorists visiting a museum in Tunis two years ago.   

In the last year, Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen rebels attacked a naval ship from the United Arab Emirates and a frigate from U.S.-backed Saudi Arabia off the western coast of Yemen. Videos of the attacks show large explosions which were believed to be the result of a missile strike Cruise Red Sea Missle Attack Houhti Yemenand/or a suicide mission by another vessel.

The attacks occurred in the southern part of the Red Sea, north of the Bah Al-Mandab straits which is a pinch-point between the Red Sea, flanked by Saudi Arabia on the east and Egypt to the west, and the Gulf of Aden to the south. Cruise ships sailing to and from the Mediterranean and to or from the Indian Sea pass through these straits.

In the last few days, Shia rebels in Yemen have launched long range missile attacks on Saudi Arabia, illustrating the continuing dangers in that area of the world.  

Security guards with a few conventional weapons may be able to fend off pirates attempting to board a cruise ship trying to run the Bah Al-Mandab straits, but they will be useless if the Houthi rebels intentionally target a cruise ship sailing in the Red Sea, or mistakenly believe that a cruise ship is a U.S.-backed Saudi or UAE naval ship.

Considering the dangers, the intrigue of visiting the Middle East does not seem to be worth the risk.  

Have a comment? Please leave one below or join the discussion on our Facebook page.   

Photo credits: Top - Bloomberg via Seaborn; bottom - Yemen's pro-Houthi Al Masirah television station shows launch by Houthi forces of a ballistic missile aimed at Saudi Arabia's King Khaled Airport. - Houthi Military Media Unit via Reuters and CBC.

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Simon Jones - November 15, 2017 7:15 AM

Hi Jim, great site and I always enjoy your articles.
I do have to say though, that your commentary about the Bloomberg article does seem to present itself as somewhat alarmist.
Whilst I agree the Bloomberg article is focused on the mystique and allure of a visit to the Middle East and makes light of the "Burly Security Guards with conventional weapons", it is a fact that such security teams have prevented any vessel they are aboard, from being hijacked or successfully attacked.
Armed Anti-Piracy teams are specifically placed aboard to prevent attack from Pirates, not to safeguard a vessel from Missile attack. Equally; the transit passage routes, visual profile, AIS Signature and communications pattern of a cruise ship does make it rather difficult to confuse one with a Naval vessel and this has not occurred to date.
Lets be clear; terrorism threats at sea against cruise ships (as opposed to Pirate threats) are more perception that actual reality, due to limited incidents (Achillie Lauro Oct '85??) and the actual process and resources required to board a cruise ship and take control whilst at sea or underway are considerable (I know this from experience - I an a Veteran).
You eluded to potential missile attack from the Houthi Rebels, who are engaged in a conflict with Saudi Arabia (to the North) and the UAE forces (to the East) and as has been seen, a coalition partner (USA) that supported them with a very distinctive type of Naval vessel. Long Range missiles fired North are not Surface to Ship missiles and whilst the Houthi's may have this capability, there is no evidence to date that a cruise ship would be a target, unless directly involved with support operations against the Houthi (evacuation etc.).
The Saudi and Emirati warships were attacked between Hodeida on the South West coast of Yemen and the Bab el Mandeb Gap, at the very southern end of the Red Sea, which is flanked by Djibouti and Eritrea to the South and Yemen to the North. It is nowhere near Egypt or Saudi Arabia; indeed from the perspective of Egypt's position; the country of Sudan is between it and Eritrea. That is a massive distance and very different to your positioning of these incidents.
Having been a Maritime Security and Cruise Ship Risk and Security Management expert for the last 20 years, providing on-going support to major cruise lines worldwide, including these specific geographical areas (Eastern Med/Red Sea/Gulf of Aden); whilst commenting as I have about your article, I do have to agree that there is a terrorist threat to cruise ships, but it is in an area that historically and even currently, the cruise line industry seems to rely on third parties to hold liability for.
This area of concern and threat is at specific Ports of Call and the associated process of Shore Excursions (Shorex).
Port Agents, Port Authorities and Shorex Agents that operate indigenously are specialists at their own occupations; Port services (Fuel, Bunkering, Berth and approach services and engagement with the Port Authorities and Pilot) The Ports will provide services to ensure the vessel operations and support services are provided and the Shorex Agents will ensure ticketing, coaches and guides are available to implement tours and they can access sites in the particular country being visited.
Occasionally we find agents that have a relationship with local authorities and Law Enforcement or Military assets, but this is rare. Equally, some of the visiting countries Governments provide security support to the cruise ships that visit, as this is valuable business to any of these countries.
However; the cascade of this provision to "on the ground" assets or local agencies, is seldom, if ever achieved and the coordinated communications required to ensure Port, transport, transit routes, local site and area assets and agencies are all working together (rare in most Middle Eastern countries) is in reality not done and neither the cruise line, nor the Port or Shorex Agents or even the Port Authorities are in a position to or have the understanding of how to identify the specific threats at each different port of call or shorex destination, assess the risks to the vessels, crews or passengers and establish the risk mitigation requirements to ensure a level of security that at best prevents an incident and should send a message of deterrent to any would-be attacker to find an easier target.
The Bardo National Museum attack in Tunis on the 18th March 2015 is an example of this, as was the beach attack at the Hotel in the same country; National security infrastructure, local authority resources and specific site security provisions were not assessed, coordinated and increased to safeguard against a threat of this type and essentially the Shorex parties "walked in blind" with scant coordination or confirmation of protective measures or support available on the ground from National or local authorities, or the site security management framework.
A harsh comment perhaps, but I believe true.
How many times do ships arrive at ports of call; thousands of passengers disbark and shorex agents take them on 1, 2 or 3+ hour transits through isolated areas to sites; places where the security has not been assessed by ship, agent or any local assessment made available to either, there has been no liaison with local authorities about protection levels or contingency plans (e.g. where is the nearest suitable hospital etc.??) and no understanding of what support or assistance is available if an incident occurs.
It is not difficult to do these things, but it does have to be consistent and managed correctly with all relevant parties, both from the cruise line and indigenously.
Some of the cruise lines do have proactive commitment to vessel, crew and passenger security; they are actively analysing their internal capability and capacity to provide the current Duty of Care requirements in very fluid and increasingly higher threat areas of transit and calls. Significantly, they understand that sometimes external support is required; not just "Burley armed anti-piracy security guards with conventional weapons" but also dedicated support that can work in countries, with National and local authorities and ensure the liaison, communications, good relationships and coordinated support in-country that is vital to safeguard some of the worlds most expensive and high profile assets and the incredibly valuable and appreciated crews and passengers aboard.
Is this scaremongering? Or a reality that needs to be addressed? I believe the latter and that mitigation of these threats in the current and future climate is both required and realistic.

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