They are the flagships of an ambitious project to position Abu Dhabi as the Monaco of the Middle East: a pair of retired frigates being transformed into a new class of personal yacht so extraordinary that the prefixes "super" and "mega" no longer suffice. Meet the gigayachts. Until now, the traditional centres for the building of luxury yachts have been in Europe, while the cruising grounds of the mega-wealthy have been the Mediterranean and the Caribbean.
Now Abu Dhabi has announced its intention not only to compete for a place at the top table of superyacht builders but also, by marketing itself as a year-round base for the maintenance, crewing and berthing of the world's largest yachts, to create a new cruising destination. What has set the yacht world buzzing is a new company, Abu Dhabi MAR, that has created a superyacht shipyard, while revealing that its first two projects are under way and already spoken for. Called Swift 141 and Swift 135, and named for their lengths in metres, the craft are dramatic conversions of two former Dutch navy frigates which will be among the fastest and biggest gigayachts in the world.
News first surfaced last September, when the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA) took a stand at the Monaco Boat Show, the first port of call for anyone in the business of buying or selling unparalleled marine luxury. ADTA was promoting the first Abu Dhabi Yacht Show, which in March will showcase some of the world's most prestigious yachts in the marina under construction at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre.
At Monaco, Abu Dhabi MAR made its ambitions clear. Four significant orders in its first year, including two smaller yachts, showed it had joined "the ranks of the world's top luxury builders". When the Swift 141 is delivered next year, said Luuk V van Zanten, the company's marketing director, "the world will recognise and celebrate a new era of gigayacht concept and construction". There was, said Mr van Zanten, "a lot of scope for yachts in the Gulf and Abu Dhabi MAR wants to make a statement that, besides what Abu Dhabi has done in 30 to 40 years, putting a huge city on the map, that the same can be done with large yachts. The intention is to become the gigayacht hub for the Gulf."
The transformation of the frigates is taking place in Abu Dhabi, where the company is developing a state-of-the-art shipyard. Both Swifts have been designed by Jacques Pierrejean, whose Paris-based Pierrejean Design Studio has specialised since 1975 in fashioning interiors for yachts and aircraft. His clients have ranged from airlines, including Etihad and Emirates, to world figures such as Jacques Chirac, King Juan Carlos and the Emir of Qatar, but this is the biggest project he has undertaken.
Mr Pierrejean visits Abu Dhabi frequently to oversee production. Like everyone connected with the project, he has signed a confidentiality agreement and flatly refuses to name the boats' owners, reveal where the yard is or say how much the yachts will cost. He does, however, say that he was pleasantly surprised when the client rejected his first, "little bit classic" designs for the Swift 141 in favour of something more cutting edge: "Most of the time these kind of people are looking for something more classic, more similar to the different boats cruising everywhere." But in this case something far more imaginative was wanted.
Work began on the Swift 141 about nine months ago. The accommodation will include a series of staterooms and majlis, with enough cabins for 80 guests and as many crew. To speed up production, many elements are being fabricated elsewhere and shipped to Abu Dhabi for assembly. The design will use a lot of specialist glass, which is being produced in America, as are parts of the superstructure. Beyond a few computer-generated images of the 135, details of the boats are sketchy and no images of the 141 have been released.
As big as they are, the two yachts will not quite be the largest gigayachts in the world. As things stand, the Swifts would rank as the fifth and ninth largest. They are almost certain to be among the fastest, however. With frigate hulls, they are expected to be capable of up to 25 knots. Although boats such as these are rumoured to come with hi-tech security systems, there is nothing James Bond about the choice of frigate hulls. "The idea was to speed up delivery," says Mr van Zanten. "By using a proven hull like the frigate you save approximately 13 months in construction time and six or seven months in engineering time."
Next year's Abu Dhabi Yacht Show is being organised by the Informa Yacht Group, owner of the Monaco Boat Show. To get some of the world's most dazzling yachts here in time, a float-on, float-off transporter will pick up boats at Genoa, Italy, in February and sail them to the capital via the Suez Canal in time for the show, March 12-14. Franck Dailles, group director of the Abu Dhabi Yacht Show, says he has no doubt that the emirate is poised to become a major centre for the gigayacht community: "One of the reasons they are going to make Abu Dhabi a success as a destination for super, mega and gigayachts is that they are actually building the marina facilities as we speak."
According to Merijn de Waard, editor in chief of SuperYacht Times, Abu Dhabi is already on the super-yacht radar: "We publish about five to seven news articles every day and over the past year we have seen an increased number of articles related to Abu Dhabi." The region, he believes, "has the potential to attract the superyacht set as a cruising area. A lot is still under construction but they have beautiful islands and coastline."
At present, six of the top 10 largest yachts are in Arab ownership, the largest being the 162-metre Dubai, owned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. But it faces a serious challenge from the Eclipse, being built in Germany for Roman Abramovich, the Russian billionaire, and rumoured to be 165 metres long. It is not clear why Mr Abramovich needs another yacht; after all, he owns two already and recently even gave away a third, the 114-metre Le Grand Bleu, to a friend. On the other hand, his Pelorus - at 115 metres one of the largest yachts when it was launched in 2003 - is now languishing in 14th place in the world rankings, even though, at US$300m, it cost Mr Abramovich rather more than the US$233m he is said to have paid for Chelsea football club.