Fujairah attacks – when shipping is caught up in a bigger story

For shipping, yet again it shows the industry is a very soft target…
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By Edward Ion

The recent acts of sabotage on vessels off Fujairah in the UAE once again demonstrate the degree to which merchant shipping is forever in the public spotlight.

Four merchant vessels sustained damage by what is being called a co-ordinated attack with the suspected use of limpet mines.

The attack, on Sunday 12 May 2019, resulted in all four ships being holed and suffering extensive hull damage. Luckily no-one was hurt in the attacks.

While at the time of writing, no-one has claimed responsibility for the attacks, there have been many allegations that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard was behind them. Speculation suggests the ships were selected because they were accessible and located at local anchorages. The attacks came under the cover of darkness.

There has been considerable speculation about the reasons behind the incident. While some theories are more plausible than others, it is fair to say the event is part of the long running geo-political saga playing out between the various antagonists in that volatile region.

Fujairah is one of the world’s major bunkering ports and the nearby Strait of Hormuz is often referred to as the choke point – or jugular – of the world. Block, or merely hinder, the strait for any length of time and the economic and political fallout would be enormous.

For shipping, it yet again shows the industry is a very soft target for anyone wishing to make a big statement and it’s guaranteed to attract sustained media attention.

Post 9/11, there have been many gruesome scenarios about terrorists taking control of a fully laden VLCC and blowing it up next to a port or city area. It has not happened but incidents like Fujairah remind everyone in the business just how vulnerable our ships can be.

The reality is that if a determined, well organised terrorist group wishes to commandeer a vessel to cause mayhem it would be a relatively easy task.

As the Fujairah incident shows, when such an incident takes place, the international media scrutiny is unrelenting.

The Navigate Response teams were on hand from the very first moment that Sunday morning and we were able to assist our clients caught up in the incident. It was clear from the outset it was no ordinary incident and that something more sinister lay behind it. It is at precisely this moment that vessel operators need expert counsel; owners and managers need to know what to do in terms of outside communication, what to say and what not to say.

As the dust settles on the attack and the industry starts to reflect on its lessons, we offer some learning points for the industry when vessels get caught up in a bigger event in complete innocence.

Very soon Navigate Response offices in various parts of the world were taking media enquiries. Because of the mystery behind the attacks, the intensity of media enquiries was exacerbated and continued for several days.

Operators of the four ships were bombarded with media enquiries from journalists wanting to know what had happened and why their vessels had been specifically targeted. While neither the operators nor Navigate Response could answer the latter question, we advised that the vessel operators should not stay silent as this would encourage further media enquiries and speculation.

We worked with crisis response teams to prepare basic what, where, when statements and taking great care not to speculate or lay blame.

It was important to let the outside world know the ships’ crews were safe, the damage to the vessels was repairable and that no other damage to property had been sustained. It was even more important to let the markets and outside world know it was business as usual for the operators and that the attack would not stop day-to-day operations for very long.

Once Navigate Response had been alerted by our clients, we were able to take full responsibility for the sustained media interest in the story.

The media urged us to speculate, to paint hypothetical scenarios and discuss reasons behind the attacks – we, of course, refused.

The media has an innate need to keep a story going once it has hit top spot in terms of headlines on a busy news day. It is our job to make sure the story is kept in perspective and that news-hungry journalists do not get the new angles they crave to keep the story alive.

We draw the heat from the media while the story is hot; our clients can then be fully focused on the job of ensuring the incident is handled well and that normal operations can resume quickly.

The owner takes care of the incident: we take care of the media.

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