Abu Dhabi sails through squall

The emirate is adorned with aquamarine waters, stretches of unspoilt beaches and hundreds of deserted islands.

United Arab Emirates - Abu Dhabi - Nov. 25, 2008:
Workers try to bring a Maserati up a ramp to be displayed next to luxury boats at the Emirates Boat Show International (cq-al) at the Abu Dhabi International Sports Marina in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2008. Amy Leang/The National  

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With its aquamarine waters, stretches of unspoilt beaches and hundreds of deserted islands, Abu Dhabi has the potential to be a boater's paradise. But the emirate is only beginning to show up on the yachting industry's radar, as a lack of marinas to dock pleasure craft, yacht and motorboats has hobbled the growth of a fully fledged boating culture. "Start a marina and the rest will follow," said Wael Juju (CK), the chief executive of Knotika Holding, organiser of the first Emirates Boat Show International, which concludes tomorrow night§ at the Abu Dhabi International Marina Sports Club. "The reason there are not enough berths is because it has been a government job, and this has not happened here before."

The inaugural boat show, which forecast more than 10,000 visitors over five evenings, saw relatively thin attendance on the first two evenings. But boat dealers could be comforted by the notion that when it comes to crowds, it's more about quality than quantity. Even as the global financial crisis hits the Gulf, the wealthy should continue to be able to afford luxury yachts, many believe. "Its not the slowdown, it's the fact there are not enough Marinas here," said Youssef Moussa, a sales representative of Sea Ray pleasure boats with Delma Marine Services. "With enough berths, I can sell all my Sea Rays."

At the boat show Wednesday evening, one prospective customer was Ayesha al Shamsi, the wife of the UAE Ambassador to Australia. Accompanied by her daughter, Mrs al Shamsi dropped her sandals on the dock and gingerly stepped aboard a Dh16 million, 82-foot long Sunseeker Manhattan yacht under the hopeful eyes of the owner. With a family that enjoyed swimming, jet skiing, parasailing and scuba diving, Mrs al Shamsi said a boat could be the perfect complement. And although she would consider the threat of an economic downturn with her purchasing plans, she said was "about 70 per cent sure" that she wanted to buy a yacht, as her daughter standing beside did her best to convince her.

"We've always had a boating culture here," Mrs al Shamsi said, reflecting on the Emirates' long history of pearling and ocean-borne traders. The emirate, with all its seafaring history, is about to see rapid changes under the new master-plans for Abu Dhabi. State-owned developers are transforming Abu Dhabi from its solitary status as an oil and gas hub into a sun-kissed, watery leisureland for the rich.

Aldar Properties, the emirate's largest developer, is heavily selling the yachting lifestyle to new home buyers. It has a hand in many coastal projects including the 10-kilometre long Al Raha Beach community, as well as Yas Island. Both projects are turning previously barren land into diverse playgrounds for the well-to-do with homes, attractions, carefully sculpted beaches and marinas. Altogether, Aldar says it is targeting 16 marine projects representing approximately 2,000 berths. The developer plans to dredge the channel between Yas and the mainland to allow "superyachts" to access the island's marinas.

Other master-developed islands next to Abu Dhabi's city centre, where luxury homes will soon spring up ? Lulu, Reem and Saadiyat ? will also be home to five-star boating amenities and thousands of new berths. And several hundred kilometres west of the city, in the Al Gharbia region, eight desert islands are also being developed with hotels and berths to draw in ocean-borne visitors. "These new projects have beautiful designs, and all of them realise that five-star quality has to be applied on the water as well as on land," Mr Juju said. His company, Knotika Holdings, organises boat shows around the Gulf, and is also creating a yachting publishing company and TV show. It is behind a Dh500 million island development at The World project in Dubai which will be able to accommodate hundreds of yachts at one time.

But Mr Juju has been hampered by a lack of information about the industry, as yacht dealers and agents are reluctant to share information. Slowly, through Knotika's programmes, publications and boat shows, he said he hoped to begin to provide a more accurate picture. At the Abu Dhabi show, where hundreds of pleasure craft jostled for attention as would-be buyers and the merely curious ambled by, some custom boat makers travelled halfway around the world to market their products.

Liquid Glass Powerboats, based in Decorah, Iowa, showed off their "go-fast" catamaran powerboats made famous in the blockbuster film, Miami Vice. The powerboats are able to reach speeds of 195 kilometres an hour and cost as much as $1m. After an "exploratory" visit to the region earlier this year which resulted in selling several boats at the Dubai boat show, David Kratz, the chief executive, said he believed the Gulf could become the next big growth market. "First it was the US and parts of Canada, and then the Mediterranean region. Now we think there are opportunities in the Middle East," he said. Mr Kratz added that he was pleasantly surprised to see a high level of knowledge and sophistication among would-be customers, even though his custom boats are just only being seen in the Gulf.

Down on the docks, Captain Pierre Makdessi stood before his 27 metre-long Pershing yacht, "MGM". Built like a bullet, the silver vessel was billed as the fastest large pleasure craft at the show with a speed of 45 knots, and had an asking price of 7.4 million euros (Dh35m). "We're hoping to sell it here," he said, adding that there were several "serious customers" who had scheduled appointments. On land, the calibre of sponsors highlighted the unique quality of visitors all were hoping to attract: Maserati sport cars, a VIP helicopter from Falcon Aviation whose interiors were designed by Hermes, the French fashion house, and luxury homes by Kaya, which is developing a small island off of Saadiyat. igale@thenational.ae