'Busy, always busy': Dubai dhow trade is setting sail again

The future for the vintage wooden ships no longer looks uncertain

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Even a humid August evening could not stop the teams of workers at Dubai Creek.

They hauled Japanese television sets, Chinese electric fans and boxes of Nescafé instant coffee on board dozens of hulking wooden dhows lined up on the quayside.

From there, the blue-painted vessels were getting ready chug out from the Creek to places as diverse as Yemen, Iran and Somaliland. Dhow captains compete for space with freighters, container ships and oil tankers on journeys that can take days.

It used to take some dhows 40 days to get their cargo loaded. Today it takes three to five days
Mahmood Amin, Marine Agency for Wooden Dhows

The Creek has been one of the centres of this dhow trade for centuries.

But while the future once looked uncertain for these creaking wooden ships, Dubai has begun to revitalise the trade.

The Ports, Customs and Free Zone Corporation (PCFC) in 2020 established the Marine Agency for Wooden Dhows to rejuvenate and regulate use of the vessels.

The agency sought to streamline entry procedures, connect dhows to traders more easily and give them better facilities.

Two years on, the number of commercial wooden dhows that entered Dubai increased to more than 2,500 in the first three months of the year ― up from 2,200 in the same period in 2021, PCFC reported in May.

Mahmood Amin, chief executive of the agency, told The National on Wednesday how it works.

Mahmood Amin, chief executive of the Marine Agency for Wooden Dhows. Chris Whiteoak / The National

“It used to take some dhows 40 days to get their cargo loaded,” Mr Amin said.

“Today it takes three to five days. This speeds up the frequency of dhow journeys and they can make multiple trips in a month rather than one,” he said.

Now, they can just crane cargo on and off the dhows easily, as opposed to loading a full container, which requires sign-off on a host of checks and regulations.

“The [crews also] used to [have] problems,” Mr Amin said.

“They didn’t know where to go and how to do things. The agency was established to solve these problems.”

Dhows, a generic name for traditional Arab sailing vessels, were traditionally two-masted boats with a distinctive lateen sail.

They use diesel engines now but can still be distinguished by the large cabin that squats at the stern, flat deck, bow that curves upwards and freewheeling crews that sleep, cook and pray on board.

They are also getting bigger. Mr Amin said vessels between 1,500 and 3,500 tonnes are now common, as well as the regular 600 to 800-tonne boats of old.

Much of the trade in Dubai is re-export, with the wholesale markets on the Creek at Deira drawing dhows and traders from across the Middle East and North Africa.

The agency also established a digital marketplace and smartphone application to connect them.

Owners can see what goods they need, while traders can pinpoint the dhows that have space as well as their routes.

Mr Amin said it was like the “Careem or Uber” of the dhow world.

Cargo dhows at Dubai Creek. They travel to Iran, India, Pakistan and other countries across the Middle East and North Africa. Pawan Singh / The National

According to Mr Amin these dhows can be more cost effective, need less red tape to operate and can be easier to load and unload because of the mix of cargo onboard.

“From here to Somaliland it has half the cost of going by a modern container ship."

The agency also ensures safety on board and makes sure all dhows have fire extinguishers, insurance certificates, lifejackets and proper generators.

“There was a lot of talk that one day these dhows would be stopped,” Mr Amin said.

“But luckily [trade] has increased a lot. It is unbelievable.”

Dubai has now become a regional hub for these wooden vessels at three wharfages: Dubai Creek, Deira and Al Hamriya. Dubai Creek, however, is where it all started.

And back on the quayside, it was close to sunset but there was no respite for crews. They mopped their brows, wrung out their soaked shirts and then went back to work loading the boats.

“All this is being loaded now,” said a security guard watching over the stacks of goods getting ready to be hauled on to the boats.

“Busy, always busy.”

Updated: August 25, 2022, 2:00 AM