Abras on Dubai Creek hark back to a simpler past

The water taxis have been taking people from one side of the waterway to the other for decades

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For decades the main artery of Dubai was the Creek, where early inhabitants first settled and where the city's first port and pearling industry thrived.

While the emirate has expanded far beyond Old Dubai's borders since then, the waterway has remained, offering a slice of the city's history to fishermen and visitors alike.

In particular, the traditional ferry-like boats known as abras plough relentlessly across Dubai Creek to this day.

One of Dubai's oldest forms of public transport, the abra, or water taxi, is still in use today. Antonie Robertson / The National

The word abra comes from the Arabic verb abara, which means "to cross", and that's exactly what these little water taxis do — take people from one side of the creek to the other every few minutes at a nominal cost (Dh1 per person, per trip).

Each abra has capacity for about 20 people and 150 boats work the routes between Deira and Bur Dubai from 6am every day. There are four stations along the creek, with the first route going from Deira Old Souq to Bur Dubai and a second, which is the busiest, going from Al Sabkha to Dubai Old Souq.

There are four abra stations along Dubai Creek. Antonie Robertson / The National

It's a unique way to get from A to B while trying to cross the emirate, without navigating the busy roads of Old Dubai, but it's also a wonderful experience for visitors, providing an alternative picture of a city that's today best known for its futuristic outlook.

The time-honoured design of these popular boats has changed little over the years, although they were overhauled to improve safety and accessibility in 2020.

Now run by the RTA, these abras are hand made from wood and powered by diesel engines. Antonie Robertson / The National

Some of the changes included adding designated spaces for wheelchairs, placing life jackets under the seats and the use of GPS technology, cameras and nol card payment systems, which is also used on the Dubai Metro.

The new generation of abras are made out of African teak and measure 10.6 metres in length and about three metres wide, with a 78 horsepower diesel engine rather than the 30hp engines of yesteryear.

The journey costs Dh1 per person, per trip and the boats can accommodate up to 20 people. Antonie Robertson / The National

The new abras were part of a master plan developed by the Roads and Transport Authority to overhaul Dubai's marine transport systems, which includes boosting the number of stations in the city to 59 by 2025 and to manufacture 26 transport modes that are not just the humble abra.

Onlookers watching the hustle and bustle on Dubai Creek. Antonie Robertson / The National

"Marine transport modes have the potential to become the ideal choice of many citizens, residents and tourists who will enjoy picturesque scenes of urban and tourist facilities on both banks of the canal and along the skyline of the Arabian Gulf shores," Mattar Al Tayer, director general of the RTA, said at the time.

Tourists can also book a private abra for Dh120 an hour to tour along Dubai's main waterway. Antonie Robertson / The National

Dubai Creek has been a well-travelled trade network since the early 19th century, kept alive by hawkers, businessmen and artisans.

Back in the 1950s, life centred around it. Back then, Dubai was merely a town, with a population of about 20,000, with people living around Bur Dubai, Deira and Shindagha.

Vessels ploughed the Silk Route, trading goods such as wood and spices with East Africa and India, while pearling fleets left and returned from the spot during the diving season.

How Dubai Creek has (and hasn't) changed in 55 years — in pictures

Updated: December 02, 2022, 2:01 PM
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