It has been a busy week for Somalia – and Somali watchers. Another in a series of international conferences on support to that country has come and gone with plenty of fine words and lots of apparent commitment. And indeed, it rather looks as though there is cause for optimism. A new President, installed after a much more representative political process than his predecessors, has taken office to popular acclaim; and key agreements about how to secure the country have been reached. Challenges abound, not least the humanitarian situation, security service delivery, government capacity and the need for a growing resource base.

A recurring theme in any discussion on Somalia is that of maritime security.  However well intentioned, such discussions inevitably segue into a discussion about piracy; and before long will disappear down a rabbit hole characterised by naval terminology.

But in these discussions, it is not always clear if maritime security is a means or an end.  And exactly whose maritime security is really under discussion.

Clearly, piracy is a problem for a broad range of actors.  It disrupts international trade and drives up prices (and delivery times) for items essential to life in many parts of the world.  It threatens the safety of mariners; and causes untold distress.  Furthermore, it – or the criminal networks which direct it – almost certainly contributes to insecurity inside Somalia including through the provision of funds to domestic and trans-national terror networks.  (That said, in an environment with little on offer by the way of alternative livelihoods, it also provides a living – albeit risky – for some Somalis.)  So piracy is a bad thing and it must be countered.

But as a result of this widely shared view, the policy discussion always seems to start with the symptom and not the cause.  It always starts with security – or more accurately, insecurity.  In this respect, there is a real (at least presentational) danger that maritime security becomes the desired end state.  However, for a country as poor as Somalia, maritime security is arguably really only a point of departure.  Once the maritime space is secure, what happens next?

With the growing (but still nascent and weak) maturity of the government in Mogadishu, it is surely time to shift the centre of gravity of this discussion from the problem (maritime insecurity) to the real desired end state (the sustainable exploitation of Somalia’s maritime domain as a contribution towards equitable national development).  Once the potential value – to Somalia – of the maritime domain is identified and quantified, the logic of tackling maritime insecurity becomes both a national priority for national interest and a shared global priority for global interest.

Moving the discussion on from maritime security to maritime economy will more clearly help to identify exactly whose security, and whose interests, should be at the heart of the debate; and will help the land-based Somalis who watch the world’s navies steam by understand that they too have an interest in what is going on in their waters.