With renewed focus on al Qaeda threats emanating from Yemen, the US is substantially increasing support to several branches of the Yemeni military. However, Yemen’s military and security forces are often involved in for-profit ventures, on both overt and covert levels. The task of building up Yemen’s Coast Guard demonstrates such difficulties.
Last year, the Coast Guard complained several times to the Interior Ministry that the Border Guard was complicit in criminal activity and “aiding smugglers as smuggling takes place in an organized way,” the Yemen Post reported. The Border Guards prevented the Coast Guard from searching boats suspected of smuggling, sometimes resulting violent clashes between the forces’ members.
The diversion of US aid into private pockets is another area of concern. US support to Yemen’s Coast Guard began in 2003, and it seems a worthy investment in light of the wide variety of criminal networks operating in Yemeni waters.
Piracy is a global priority when 20% global shipping passes through the Gulf of Aden. Tens of thousands of Somalis are smuggled across the narrow Bab al Mendab to Yemen annually. Traffickers carry weapons and other contraband to Somalia on the return leg of the trip. Diesel subsidized by the Yemeni government is smuggled out as enormous quantities of illegal narcotics and counterfeit pharmaceuticals are smuggled in. Yemen’s 1900 km coastline makes it easy for al Qaeda terrorists to slip into and out of the country. Counter-terror operations become more pressing with Somalia’s al Shabab terrorists coordinating with Yemen’s al Qaeda.
The problem for the US arises when the Coast Guard neglects these concerns to hire itself out as a private security contractor to shipping lines.
The Yemeni firm, Lotus Projects, was established “based on the demand of various official bodies for professional intermediaries to act between government bodies and private or public entities overseas.” Lotus’s website further highlights the firm’s “close working relationship with Yemeni Governmental Security Organizations” including the Coast Guard.
Lotus’ UK based franchise, the Gulf of Aden Group Transit (GoAGT), reports that it has a “unique agreement with Lotus Projects and the Yemen Navy which means you are guaranteed the protection of highly trained military personnel and the Yemen Government in the event of an attack.”
Indeed. “For $35,000 for a three day transit, GoAGT will supply an armed team of six serving Yemen military or coastguard personnel to embark on and protect a vessel between the GoAGT transit coordinates,” Marinelog.com reported.
The US has been training the Yemen Coast Guard since 2003. The US delivered 24 vessels to Yemen in that time. In 2009, the US Coast Guard awarded a $28.2 million contract to build two 87-foot Protector-class Coastal Patrol Boats for the Yemen Coast Guard. The vessels “will assist the Yemen Coast Guard in addressing an anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden that is strategically important to U.S. interests,” the USCG said in announcing the contract.
But those anti-piracy missions will likely profit a private company. And other important patrols may be abandoned altogether in favor of lucrative contracts with foreign shippers.
GoAGT promises “a dedicated escort by a heavily armoured 37.5 metre Yemen Navy Austal patrol boat.” Yemen only has ten Austal vessels, delivered in 2005 at a cost of about US$ 5 million dollars each. The boats, now tasked as merchant escorts, were built to engage in “general police missions in coastal waters, customs control and anti-terrorist operations at sea, offshore protection and tracking, surveillance of the Exclusive Economic Zone, defence and protection of national sea areas and operations within integrated task forces,” Austal reported.
Stars and Stripes, an independent news source for the US military community, reported on the controversy. Lt. Col. Bakill Hamzah, operations officer for the Aden District of the Yemeni coast guard, and manager of the country’s National Anti-Piracy Center said to the paper that Yemen considers hiring out Yemeni Coast Guardsmen to commercial companies as an “appropriate” and “good” solution to counter piracy.
Not all agree.
“It slightly smacks of vigilantism to me,” said Tony Mason, secretary general of the International Chamber of Shipping and International Shipping Federation.
On a broader level, one of the leading causes of instability in Yemen boils down to the widespread appropriation of government resources by individuals for profit or personal goals.