Historic seafarers' bay is shipshape again

Expansion at Al Bateen Marina, the former site of Abu Dhabi's dhow fleet, will create 323 berths for boats with long-term plans to make the area a tourist destination.

General view of Al Bateen Wharf.

Courtesy of TDIC
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ABU DHABI // Long a crucial launching point for sailors, the Al Bateen Marina is cherished for its rich seafaring history. Just off the beach, local fishermen and pearlers once jockeyed for patches of land next to which to moor their dhows.

Now, with the unveiling yesterday of a modern, 323-berth marina, there will be room for everyone. The Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC) has more than doubled the number of berths for fishing vessels as part of a renovation project in the capital's oldest occupied area. It was here that Ali al Rumaithi's father set off on dhow races, wading knee-deep into the water to push his boat into the sea.

Visiting the newly redeveloped west fishing bay for the first time, Mr al Rumaithi, 35, admired the upgrades: white concrete gangways stretching over the water, fire-safety equipment, lighting, mooring berths equipped with running water and electrical outlets. "Before, with my father, we would go from land and stand in the water to here," he said, gesturing to his knees. "Now there's no need. I can be dry. I can use the hose and wash my boat. It's very, very nice.

"My father did racing when I was a child, and now my father only stays at home and I use the boat." To be completed by mid-2012, the entire area will be a signature waterfront destination for tourists, with a yacht club, marina-management offices, cafes, a fishermen's community centre, a boardwalk, retail outlets and a 400-room luxury hotel. The project will also include an east bay for ships longer than 18 metres.

"There was nothing here before, just dirt. But there's a long way to go," said Ali al Hammadi, the director of special projects and government relations for the TDIC, touring the site this week. "There's going to be a fishermen's community centre, like a majlis, and we'll also have a local restaurant so the tourists can come, taste our food, talk to some of these nice old guys and listen to their stories of fishing."

The TDIC would not reveal the costs of the project as a matter of policy. Walking the length of the 280-metre main pontoon, Mr al Hammadi noted that engineers built a sturdy floating dock from concrete rather than wood. "So it feels like you're walking on solid ground. If you're carrying heavy stuff, sometimes just a small movement of waves can shake you. This is what the new hotels with marinas are doing."

Space for only about 160 boats was available before the marina's first phase was completed, he said. Vehicles jammed the one road towards the wharf. Fire-fighting equipment was inadequate and thefts were not uncommon events. The new marina will have 24-hour security and lights lining the dock, a dry-stack building or "boat library" that can store 140 boats and an underground car park for more than 800 vehicles.

To improve water circulation and quality in the marina, a 192-metre underground culvert has been constructed to link the east and west bays. "The main idea here is to provide something better for the fishermen," Mr al Hammadi said. "I see a local guy enjoying what he lives to do, what his family used to do. That's what it's about. When I see them smile, it's better than any project. This is one that feels like it really pays back."

Eventually, the TDIC expects Al Bateen to become a major tourist draw, a place for visitors and residents to relax and soak up the "rich atmosphere of genuine Emirati seafaring culture". Mr al Hammadi said that "roughly 70 or 80" boat tenants have been approved by an independent Al Bateen Fishermen's Committee to berth at the new west bay, with priority given to long-time Emirati fishermen. "These are seniors, and they know that so many people would love to be on that marina," Mr al Hammadi said. "Quite a good number of people are on the waiting list. Somewhere around 300 people."

Mr al Rumaithi, the dhow racer, said his only regret was that the original wharf was free to use. If he chooses to berth one of his three dhows at Al Bateen, he said rent could be around Dh10,000 (US$2,722) a year. Still, those rates are lower than those at other marinas in the capital. In a release yesterday, Mubarak al Muhairi, the managing director of the TDIC, characterised the Al Bateen Wharf revamp as "a natural gateway" to experiencing Abu Dhabi's heritage.

"Al Bateen Fishermen's Marina has been developed to specifically serve the district's resident fishermen who have historically occupied this area, as well as accommodate the needs of its community," he said. The five-star Al Bateen Wharf Hotel complex, which is being developed as a joint venture partnership between the TDIC and Belbadi Enterprises, is scheduled for completion in the first quarter of 2013.