East Mediterranean: Prospects, challenges, opportunities


Maritime security is a highly contested concept and encapsulates the state-centric “narrow conception” of maritime security which refers to the traditional interstate maritime territorial disputes. The Secretary General of the UN in his 2008 report, titled “Oceans and the law of the sea,” refers to a broadened human-centric approach and calls states towards a more collective maritime security. He identifies seven specific threats to maritime security and recognises that these evolving threats go beyond the use of force and state boundaries, reflecting the human insecurity conditions ashore. 

The first is piracy and armed robbery at sea, which although are not currently evident in the East Med, make the headlines for the last many years in SE Asia, West Africa and the Indian Ocean. 90 percent of the global trade is transported in ships’ hulls, and East Med is a node for international shipping, connecting three major choke points: Gibraltar, the Suez Canal and Bosporus. On the other hand, conflicts in the region have created unstable states (such as e.g. Libya, Syria, etc.) which have created armed groups and ungoverned spaces to potentially act as sanctuaries for wannabe pirates. With both criteria of “offer and demand” fulfilled, policy makers should not consider the scenario for piracy to return to its birthplace as impossible. Greece in particular is a traditional maritime nation and the sea is inseparable from Greek culture, history, society and existence per se. More than 50% of the global merchant fleet belongs is managed by Greek shipping companies, although the vast majority is registered in other states under “flags of convenience.” Their security should be seen as a significant component of the much needed development in Greece and a mutually accepted formula should be developed between the industry and the state towards this end.

The threat posed by maritime terrorism in the region cannot be overlooked either. Terrorism in the maritime domain is a very minor percentage of the land based equivalent – less than 2 percent of the recorded international terrorist attacks. Yet, the terrorist attacks against UUS Cole and the 158,000-ton super tanker Limburg in 2000 and 2002 respectively, both executed by Al Qaida off the Yemen coast, indicate that they have a significantly high impact. East Med is a very attractive and popular tourism destination, and tourism is the primary contributor and crutch to the Greek economy as well. The density of cruise ship transits and port visits, for example, raise security concerns in the cruise ship industry, which by no means wants to bring back memories of the infamous hijacking of the Italian MS Achille Lauro cruise ship off the coast of Egypt by the Palestine Liberation Front in 1985.

Illicit trafficking and smuggling (arms, narcotics, etc.) have been extensively recorded in the region, and even escalated to major political issues within Greece. The extent and frequency of their occurrence as well as the damage they inflict in societies in all terms are beyond any doubt. Human trafficking and smuggling in particular has reached unprecedented dimensions in the Med during the last decade and claimed hundreds of thousands of innocent lives. Again, we can identify the root causes of this plague in regional conflicts (e.g. Syria, Afghanistan, etc.) and human insecurity conditions across several African states who have created a torrent of migrants and/or refugees seeking for a better life and/or fleeing the violence and conflict respectively. As a result, criminal networks exploit their desperation and put human lives at risk, by offering them false hope and encouraging them to undertake this perilous journey. And they have a huge price to pay – both in financial and human lives’ terms. These criminal networks again, flourish under the tolerance of sovereign states, and limited inter-state collaboration in this particular area –in our case between e.g. Greece and Turkey due to longstanding disputes and prejudice- only intensifies the phenomenon and increases the death toll.

Moving on to IUU fishing, it is a highly overlooked and underestimated security challenge, which poses significant threats to food, economic and environmental security. The EU estimates that IUU catches count between 11 and 26 million tons – approximately 15 percent of the overall annual marine catches, while in SE Med, more than 40 species of native fish are being threatened with extinction. Focusing on the Aegean Sea, Greek islanders can be seen as vulnerable communities, traditionally dependent on fisheries for their survival and livelihoods, especially during winter months when tourism is in decline. But as my research finds, very often the same fishing boats which commit fisheries management violations are also the (legitimate) cover for other crimes, such as human smuggling and trafficking.

All the discussed maritime insecurities, be they facts or scenarios for preventive and/or protective security policies form the landscape of challenges faced in the East Med region. Juxtaposing these challenges with the UN sustainable development goals (UNSDGs), we can clearly reaffirm that security and development go in hand, as a number of these goals can’t be achieved without minimizing security risks.  As the potential for blue growth and ocean development is either overlooked or undervalued in the region, a swift in the policy makers’ focus towards the maritime space is more necessary than ever with a strong element of regional and international cooperation included. All the above challenges are transnational by nature and cross-border by default. As borders do exist at sea, these challenges can’t be addressed unilaterally. Additionally, we need to better understand the interconnection and interdependence of these challenges as traditional conflicts on land are directly linked to contemporary challenges at sea. In the contemporary globalized and highly interconnected environment, we can’t afford to consider them as isolated and distinctive cases which take place in a different geographic region. Instead, a more holistic and comprehensive approach is needed, to acknowledge the inseparable land-sea nexus and acknowledge that as long as peace is challenged on land, security at sea and sustainable development are hard to achieve.

* Dr Ioannis Chapsos is Research Fellow in Maritime Security, Centre for Trust, Peace & Social Relations (CTPSR), Coventry University, UK.