The Dubai Creek harbour masters

Making deals and moving goods around the world is a multibillion-dirham business at Dubai Creek. But it's the men loading the dhows who work the hardest and risk the most.

Making deals and moving goods to other parts of the world is a multibillion-dirham business at Dubai Creek. But while money drives this lucrative trade, it's the men loading the dhows who are working the hardest, and risking the most. By Conor Purcell. Photographs by Ryan Carter. From a certain angle the wharves that line Dubai Creek look like the loading bays of a giant out-of-control supermarket. Boxes are stacked precariously, crates are dumped in huge piles and sacks and bags are thrown haphazardly over the ground. The goods are diverse: Vietnamese cashew nuts, giant LG freezers, Malaysian office furniture, water tankers from Ajman, Ninja "foodstuff" from China, hundreds of bags of garlic, a solitary jet ski. Beeping forklifts reverse around crates and battered open-top Isuzus offload boxes of Heinz tomato ketchup.

Men from Iran, India, Pakistan and Somalia load the dhows, sweating and shouting. Others smoke cigarettes, some sleep; all are part of a multibillion-dirham business: moving goods from Dubai to India, Iran, Pakistan and Somalia. There are eight wharves on Dubai Creek, each slightly different. Only wooden ships, some with a capacity of up to 800 tonnes, are allowed to enter the creek. Each wharf has the capacity to handle 31 boats at a time, and 720,000 tonnes of cargo come and go every year.

Despite the presence of the world's largest man-made harbour at Port Rashid and Jebel Ali, capable of handling more than 1.5 million cargo containers a year, the wharves at Dubai Creek live on, barely changed from a century ago. Like the dhows that populate them, their longevity is testament to the elegance of their original design. Before Dubai became a financial centre it was a port and a trading hub. Before free zones and hedge funds, before Singapore and Hong Kong, before upturn and downturn, Dubai was making deals and moving goods. Geographically it was ideally situated, between India and East Africa and the rest of the Gulf. Even its name comes from the Indian word for "two bays", a clue to its attraction for ships and its close links to the subcontinent.

The wharves closest to the creek entrance are filled with dhows that shuttle back and forth to Iran, to ports such as Bandar Abbas and Bushehr. The trade between Dubai and Iran is lucrative - estimated to generate more than US$3 billion (Dh11bn) annually - and Dubai is the focal point of sea trade with a country that has been under US trade sanctions for decades. The crew on these boats are friendly: they offer tea, are happy for anyone to walk across their boats, they yell "hello" in Farsi, Arabic and broken English. On one dhow a few crewmen are sitting smoking, waiting for the last of the cargo to be loaded before sailing for Iran that evening.

For men such as Hadi, the dhow's captain, it can be a dangerous trip. As a result of increased sanctions (those imposed by the US have been in place since 1987, with more added by the UN since then), smuggling is rife in Iran, a practice that the Iranian navy seeks to stamp out by attacking or detaining dhows which they suspect, rightly or wrongly, of carrying contraband goods. He shows me the burn marks that cover his arms and the side of his abdomen - the result, he says, of a clash with the Iranian navy seven years ago. He tells me that the navy shot at the dhow and says 10 men died. He survived and spent two months in an Iranian hospital before returning to work. He was scared but explains that he has four children and one wife. "They need to eat." So he is still working the route seven years later.

"We leave at before sunset and we travel with no lights so the navy cannot see us." He smiles and rubs his arms. "It's bad if they see us." There are six men on Hadi's boat, an engineer, a cook and four "navvies" - the men sleep in shifts, with four always on watch. Is he afraid? He laughs and makes the motion of a violent wave. "Only when it is like this," he says, rocking his arm back and forth.

The sea trade between Dubai and Iran was a subject raised by the former US President George W Bush when he met Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, on his visit to the emirate in 2007. It seems absurd that these sailors and their rickety, weathered boats should take on such geopolitical importance. But not all the cargo is innocent. In 2008, UAE officials intercepted a number of banned goods bound for Iran, including a consignment of zirconium, a component of nuclear reactors.

But for men such as Moshtaba, a tall, handsome Iranian from a village near Shiraz, these are someone else's issues. "We bring many goods," he says. "Our job is just to bring, not to think about America or Iran. We go at night, we all do, so no problem." He laughs. On the dhow next to Hadi's, two old men are cooking fish on a stove. The boat is empty save for a rusting orange bucket filled with empty milk cartons and Mustang cigarette packets. It is a Monday and most of the dhows are full, ready to sail that evening. The mood is relaxed at this wharf: some men sleep, others shave, another group of men play dominoes and wait for a delivery of LG TVs.

One of the domino players - who did not want to be named - tells me of his fears for his home country. "Iran is so beautiful, the people are beautiful, but those in charge, not so good. Very sad." His face is lined and his hair is thick and grey. He laughs and jokes with the other men as they sip tea and watch the game. towards Maktoum Bridge there is another wharf; the dhows here are bigger and are bound for Somaliland, a semi-autonomous part of Somalia, free of the anarchy that has gripped the rest of the country. Egal, a large cheery Somali is checking that all the boxes make it on to the ship. He has worked at the wharf for four years and the dhow - considerably bigger than any of the Iranian ones - is packed to bursting. The crews on these routes are all Indian. Somalis are banned from the boats; a safeguard to stop any rogue crew members working with the pirates that plague the Somali coast.

A white Lexus car and a decrepit minivan are among the cargo, with hundreds of boxes wedged in between them. Watching the men load the dhow is fascinating. A large rope net is laid flat on the ground and boxes are stacked on top of it. Then two men hook the net to the crane and it is lifted, bulging, into the air, before being unhooked and unloaded by six Indian men, many of whom are wearing woolly hats despite the midday heat. Somali men dressed like office clerks look on, signing ledgers and ticking off boxes as the cargo moves from land to sea. It takes seven days to load the dhow and seven more to sail to Berbera - a strange symmetry that is apparent across these docks. There is a precision not immediately apparent among the honking horns, piles of boxes and sweating men. But this is an exact science, one that has been practised for more than 100 years.

To trace the story of modern Dubai, you have to talk about Dubai Creek. While the creek had long been a centre of trade, it was its dredging in the late 1950s that gave Dubai an advantage over other emirates such as Sharjah. The barges that brought goods in from the steamers could now enter and exit the creek regardless of the tide. The same was true for the dhows coming and going to Iran, India and Pakistan.

The creek and the business-friendly attitudes of Dubai's rulers was soon evident - by the early 1960s it was clear that the creek was no longer able to handle the number of boats that came and went every day. Port Rashid - built for Dh133 million and opened in 1972 - was the answer, followed by the massive Jebel Ali harbour. As Frauke Heard-Bay points out in her book, From Trucial States To United Arab Emirates: "Since the first modest attempt to improve the entrance to the creek early in the 1950s and thus to influence fortune, successive Rulers of Dubai have led the development of the City State with a single-minded determination to provide facilities, to encourage existing business and to attract new business."

The setting is somewhat different today - across from the dhows stand solar-powered parking meters and dhow taxis reach berths with computerised turnstiles. There is a rather tacky abra-shaped souvenir shop and the Creek View Restaurant with Spanish and Russian tourists eating "speghetti blouniz" while bored-looking waiters stand in the shade. Yet the men who work these boats are the same as the men who were here decades ago, and the commerce is the same: getting goods from point A to point B in the quickest and most profitable time possible.

An Indian man who is making sure his merchandise is being loaded on to the Somaliland-bound dhow points at the white sedan already onboard. "This car was sold to a dealer in Dubai," he tells me. "That dealer sold it to an agent who ships it to Somaliland. There it is picked up and sold to a dealer who sells to a buyer somewhere in Somalia. At each sale the person selling makes money." Money is what drives the metronomic precision at these wharves. From the cooks and navvies who send home tiny sums to feed their families, to the Emirati dhow owners who make large commissions, to the dealers, agents and middlemen who profit off the top, this is commerce in action: business is always about the bottom line.

And it's that motive that makes these men sail across stretches of dangerous water. One Somali man at Wharf 1 beside Maktoum Bridge was waiting for his boxes of tuna fish to be loaded. Their destination: Mogadishu. Would they get there? "Of course, it always gets there." With that, he was gone, shouting at the two Indian men who were loading the boxes on to an already packed boat. The future of Dubai Creek is the subject of much debate. Two years ago, it was reported that Dubai Customs were looking into the possibility of relocating all long-haul dhows to Al Hamriya Port in Deira, as part of a massive Dh300 million expansion and redevelopment project at the site. It was a controversial decision, but one that made sense: business at Dubai Creek has outgrown the available facilities, and Al Hamriya has modern computerised systems that will make the job of Dubai Customs much easier.

But in March last year, the authority apparently had a change of heart, announcing that because of the Creek port's "historical signifincance", the move would not go ahead. Instead, a feasibility study would begin on redeveloping the Creek, with new security measures at Ras al Khor, an offshore customs point for dhows 1.5km away, assisting the customs authorities with their huge task and easing their concerns for security. As yet, however, no plans are confirmed.

Most of the men are philosophical about the Creek's future. "If the move happens, it happens," says Farhan, a Pakistani man drinking a Dh1 tea at a restaurant near Wharf 1. "Business will not stop. Business will keep going." He is right. The trade will continue, and the men will make money to send home, to reinvest or to get rich. The creek will still feature dhows, be they floating restaurants, pleasure boats and water taxis. But for now they are still there, in a part of the city far removed from skyscrapers and modern hotels. This is Dubai in a microcosm: locals and expatriates making money. Farhan talks for a while about his family in Peshawar, and his dislike of the bad weather he encounters at sea.

As he gets up to leave he laughs. "Time for work."