A bridge from past to present: can Dubai’s abras survive modernisation?

Is it the end of the traditional abras that have been operating in the waters of Dubai Creek for more than 40 years?

For many people Deira and the creek, the Khor Dubai, with its dhow moorings, abra water taxis, and souks is the very essence of the old city. Sarah Dea / The National
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Abra water taxis are one of the most traditional sights of Dubai, ferrying thousands across the Creek each day, but can they survive modernisation?

They are synonymous with Dubai Creek and, somewhat unusually for the city, the old abra boats are practical as well as charming.

They have been operating in the creek for more than 40 years, ferrying people back and forth from the Bur Dubai and Deira sides of the waterway.

The hundreds of abras that plough noisily across the Creek dozens of times per day have become one of the area’s oldest and most authentic sights. And at Dh1 a ride, they are easily the country’s cheapest tourist experience.

“The engine smell is not a problem for me because I love my job,” says abra driver Mohammed Rafik Ahmed Hussein, 28.

“I like this job too much. It is open.”

There are significant differences in the money the abra drivers take home each month.

Some earn mostly through commission, while others take home a salary of up to Dh3,000. This is significantly more than they might earn on a building site.

Mohammed, from Myanmar, has been driving an abra for the past decade. He came to Dubai with his brother and sister-in-law 19 years ago and is “not allowed” to return, he says.

“Before, in Dubai, I had another job. I worked in a shop,” he says, standing at the wheel of boat number 68, wearing what are labelled as Hermes reflector aviator sunglasses.

“This job makes me happy, I like being in the open.”

The boats are just as popular with Dubai residents as tourists. They begin operating at 5am, ferrying dozens of men from one side of the Creek to the other, in time for the start of the working day.

The word abra means “to cross” in Arabic. In the 1970s the Creek crossings were a far more relaxed affair. Costing 25 fils, the rowing abras would push off from the rocky banks and compete for space in the water with the larger trading dhows and barges.

Today’s abras are noisier, faster and busier.

With each boat carrying about 16 people a time and doing an average of 18 single trips a day, the drivers collect about Dh288 per day.

Mohammed says he rents the boat for Dh200 per day, and he keeps any money he earns over that.

He works from 6am until midnight, every other day. He says he earns between Dh1,200 and Dh2,000 a month, depending on how busy his boat is.

Other drivers are paid a set monthly salary and all the boat’s takings are handed over.

At first glance all the boats look identical. There is a seating area in the middle that consists of a hollow box raised above the body of the vessel.

In the middle of this is a cut-out hole about one metre square where the driver stands, with just the top half of his body sticking out.

The boat’s diesel engine can be seen just in front of the driver, and emits strong fumes and heat. Scattered across the floor are dozens of bottles of water to keep the driver hydrated during his 18-hour shift.

The seating area is usually covered with brightly-patterned but faded plastic. It is about the only feature that distinguishes one boat from the next.

There is also a much-needed rudimentary sunshade built from a wooden frame.

“My boat is four-years-old but it’s no problem,” says Mohammed, who lives in a room in a creekside building, shared with nine other men.

“This boat is new. If there is a problem the owner takes them to Al Jaddaf. They fix them there.”

Abdulla Ali, an Emirati, says he has been riding the abras for more than two decades.

“There is too much traffic at the Creek,” says Abdulla, 55. “Look all around – too many cars. If I drive from this side to there, where do I park? If I bring my car here I cannot park.

“The abras are very cheap to ride. I come once or twice a week for shopping or to see my friends.

“My home is this side, I want to go to that side. Why would I spend more than Dh1? Parking can cost maybe Dh10 for one hour. Why would I do this?”

Parking at the Creek is difficult. There are constant patrols by police who tick off drivers who have given up and double-parked with their hazard lights on, mounted a kerb, or simply abandoned their car in the middle of the road for a few minutes.

But the increase in other forms of transport is not to everyone’s liking.

“Now there is too much competition,” says Mohammed Ali, one of the older abra drivers, who grins and flashes his two remaining stained teeth. He has been working the water for 40 years, he says.

“Before it was good, there was no other transport.

“Now there is the Metro, taxis, cars. It is too much competition.”

In 2008 the Roads and Transport Authority said it would replace all 149 wooden abras the following year with "a new generation" of boats that would be better for the environment, lighter and more flexible.

The head of the Marine Agency said they would be made from composite fibre in an aluminium sandwich, with a film of wood to preserve the traditional shape.

It was reported again in December that the Marine Agency would replace all the motorised abras with electric versions, like those already operating in the waters around the Burj Khalifa, at Atlantis, The Palm hotel, and at Global Village. It is not known whether the price will change.

Another driver, Mohammed Tanweer from Pakistan, says he earns a Dh1,000 salary and works on the water because he does not have a driving licence.

“I got a visa from the boat operator so I work here,” says Mohammed, 21.

“I am not spending the money I get on a driving licence. This work is good for me.”

Some of the older drivers say no one has ever “gone down”, no one has drowned, but bumping noses with other boats is not unusual if the wind is strong or a much larger ship creates waves.

“They are very safe,” says Mohammed.

“I never heard of anyone going down, it hasn’t happened, really.”

This month Dubai announced plans to rejuvenate some of the oldest parts of the city, focusing on Khor Dubai.

The Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing, Dubai Municipality and Dubai Culture said the improvements, which include a new museum, paths for pedestrians, and restoration, will complement the city’s plans to achieve United Nations World Heritage status.

Dubai had applied for Unesco World Heritage Site status for the Creek but had its most recent bid rejected.

The International Council on Monuments and Sites (Icomos) released its report into the decision in June.

The key to receiving the coveted status relies on a city or country’s ability to prove the place has Outstanding Universal Value.

Icomos concluded the area did not possess Outstanding Universal Value, and it did not meet the conditions of integrity and authenticity.

It noted: “With exception of the waterway and some of the banks and markets, major parts of the property have lost connection to their historical use and function.”

Hopefully, the historical and functional abras will live to see another day.

“I would be very sad if I cannot work on the water. I would not be able to do anything else,” says Mohammed.