Inside Gulf Craft: the UAE's megayacht shipyard

As boat sales boom, the Umm Al Quwain shipbuilder has doubled production of its superyachts

While the world feels the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, the mega-rich have been seeking added sanctuary by snapping up yachts so they can physically distance in the lap of luxury.

Boat brokers are struggling to meet demand, but that is good news for one privately owned UAE company.

Far from the bustling berths of Monaco and Cannes, where most superyachts spend the summer, is the emirate of Umm Al Quwain, on a peninsula in the north of the UAE.

Along a coastline dominated by mangroves and blue-clawed crabs is one of the world's top ten shipyards. Gulf Craft employs more than 1,000 people, and has made more than 10,000 vessels since it was established by Emirati businessman Mohammed Alshaali in 1982.

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We have doubled production for our larger yachts, and maybe even tripled production of smaller vessels
Talal Nasralla, Gulf Craft chief executive

Inside cavernous indoor warehouses that cover an area bigger than four football pitches, Gulf Craft makes some of the world's most luxurious superyachts.

This is not an assembly plant; nearly every element of each vessel is designed and built in Umm Al Quwain – from the moulding of the carbon-fibre hulls, to the joinery of the five-star interiors and the welding of the sleek metalwork which surrounds the decks.

Chief executive Talal Nasralla said this is a point of pride for the company, but it also makes them competitive on price.

"At Gulf Craft we look at the craftsmanship. We compete on the world stage in terms of taste, finish and quality because our team of craftsmen work with their hands and look at the very fine details," said Mr Nasralla, who took over as chief executive in February.

"We are a vertically integrated company. Everything is made in-house, and that brings down costs."

Gulf Craft can make 200 boats a year and specialises in composite yachts made out of carbon fibre and vinyl ester rather than from steel and aluminium, which also brings down the price.

Composite vessels consume less fuel than their metal counterparts, do not rust and have a shallow draft – meaning their keel is not far below the waterline – ideal for navigating the shallow waters around the UAE, the Caribbean and the Mediterranean Sea.

Prices start at $70,000 (Dh257,000) for a 31 foot day boat, and soar to $17m (Dh63m) for a Majesty 140.

The National toured the shipyard and watched the boatbuilders at work – sanding, cutting and welding.

Outside, two 150-tonne travel lifts designed to raise the biggest of yachts stood idle. But moored up along the quayside were some of Gulf Craft's newest vessels, their decks covered in protective blue sheets as labourers added the finishing touches.

One was the flagship megayacht called Majesty 175, which was sold to a prominent Emirati businessman for $35m (Dh129m).

Measuring 53 metres, it is the world's largest composite production vessel, comprising four decks, seven en suite bedrooms, a gym, a lift, a professional kitchen and discrete staff quarters for 10.

It looked ready to sail – just the infinity swimming pool needed filling.

The impact of the pandemic

During the local and international lockdowns of 2020, the Gulf Craft boatyards had to close, and supply chains were disrupted, causing production delays. Sales slowed to a trickle, as the world's population stayed home.

But this year, the company bounced back with a stronger first quarter than the past three years, Mr Nasralla said.

"The company took a very wise decision to continue building during 2020, so we came out on the other side of the pandemic with a wealth of stock. This meant we were able to meet the rising demand at the beginning of 2021.

"In the past we've seen the yard build up to two or three large yachts, maximum, a year. Now we have five, nearly six orders for our 100ft yacht.

"We have doubled production for our larger yachts, and maybe even tripled production of smaller vessels. We have a build backlog up to mid-2022."

Gulf Craft sells its boats to buyers all over the world, including to the GCC, Turkey, Russia, Italy, Slovenia and the US. In America, sales of vessels, marine products and services surged to a 13-year high last year – $47 billion – an increase of nine per cent from the previous year, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association.

Gulf Craft's customers are not all established industry leaders with deep pockets, Mr Nasralla said.

"We have a good mix of clients, but what we've seen lately is that the younger generation of buyers are coming into the picture, and especially in the last couple of years, we have seen younger people more interested in being at sea with their families.

"There's a generation of those younger nomads, buying our smaller yachts."

Socially distanced at sea

Mr Nasralla believes the yachting industry's recovery in the past six months is in part down to last year's lockdowns.

"We believe that this is partly driven by the social distancing that people feel when they are on the yacht with their families," he said.

"Of course, the lack of travel during 2020 is contributing as well, plus the closure of certain destinations, but people have also realised that spending time on a yacht with their family and friends provides them with the ultimate vacation at home.

"Plus, when travel restrictions ease in the future, it will be relatively easy for them to take their yachts around the world, so it's a full solution."

In pictures: Gulf Craft's Majesty 140

Updated: July 4th 2021, 5:30 AM
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