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The history of dhows in Dubai

Sitting on the banks of Dubai Creek, next to a gate bearing the name ‘Obaid Bin Juma Bin Suloom’, a shipyard buzzes with activity as a small army of workers keeps busy around a magnificent wooden structure. Each artisan is fully absorbed with the task at hand. One toils away, stationed next to a pile of enormous teak wood logs and vigorously saws the gigantic trunks, before another boat-builder takes over to tirelessly plane the planks until they are perfectly smooth and flat. The polished pieces are then carried to the skeleton of an enormous wooden dhow, where they are hammered into the imposing structure using long, thick metal nails. Such a sight is a rare occurrence in modern-day Dubai and offers a glimpse of a distant past, long before the advent of today’s luxurious lifestyle and the rise of the city’s futuristic landscape. It is reminiscent of a time when life took a much slower pace and when local tribes looked to the sea for survival.

For centuries, traditional wooden boats known as sanbuk brought back fresh fish to feed the local tribes that gradually settled along the coast. Soon, these early settlements of Dubai and Abu Dhabi became thriving ports and dhows were used to carry a variety of local wares across oceans to India, China and East Africa. In summer, shu’i boats carried courageous divers out to the Gulf’s oyster banks where they searched the sea’s dark floor for precious pearls. To this day, whether ferrying wares around the world or slicing through the ocean in competitions, the dhow is a familiar sight in Dubai.

Dhows were built to last and the process of engineering them has benefited from centuries of seafaring ingenuity. Materials for the grand vessels were originally imported from surrounding countries. Teak used for the keel and masts was brought from India, rope came from Zanzibar while the sail canvas was sourced from Bahrain and Kuwait. Today, the wood used in their design tends to come from Malaysia, India, or Pakistan while iron and pins used to connect the great planks are available in Dubai.

The dhow construction process differs from the western model of firstly creating a framework before combining it with the hull planking. Instead, dhow building in this part of the world begins with the stem and stern posts, followed by the rough unfinished hull planks, usually made from teak and held in place with supporting ribs or templates. The internal reinforcing framework is then introduced once the hull nears completion. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of holes are hand-drilled into the frame to avoid splitting the wood and long nails in oiled fibre secure the planks to the outer shell.

Local builders spend many years learning the craft, which is handed down the generations. For Mohammed bin Obaid bin Juma bin Suloom, one of the very last dhow-building masters, his profession is a way of life. “It is more than a business, it’s part of our family tradition and our great grandfather’s legacy,” he says as he shows old black-and-white photographs of his family. In one of them, his father, dressed in the traditional kandora, smiles as he stands next to a small fishing boat. As bin Suloom scans historical photographs of the old buildings with wind towers along the creek, he recalls how his family’s business grew alongside the evolution of Dubai itself.

“In 1953, my father set up shop in Al Ras where he started building small boats, or abras, which he used to transport passengers across the creek between Deira and Bur Dubai. He then moved to Garhoud where he went on to construct fishing boats and then large cargo ships with a capacity of 150 tons, which was quite a feat at the time.”

In 1972, a chance meeting with UAE royalty saw bin Suloom’s father obtain his official trade licence as a dhow builder. “The ruler of Dubai, HH Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, was out on a regular patrol in the desert when he found my father working in an empty space in the Hamriya area. He was sawing wood with the help of a small power generator. Our then ruler was so affected by the what he saw, that soon after he ordered that my father was given electricity and running water, as well as ownership of the land,” explains bin Suloom.

A thriving business followed and just like his father, bin Suloom grew up to love this job. He recalls: “At first, I was reluctant to learn. I just wanted to play football after school, but my father insisted that my brother and I come to the workshop straight from class. I have loved it ever since and when my father was too busy to take me to the shipyard, I would go by myself.”

Building on his father’s legacy, bin Suloom hopes to add a new accomplishment to the family’s proud history. In 1978, his father built Emirate 1, a 300-tonne cargo-ship that is still beautifully preserved to this day. Following on from this, bin Suloom is embarking on an ambitious venture to build the biggest wooden cargo ship in history, with a capacity of 4,500 tonnes. The project will take up to 30 people, working six days a week for over 18 months, to reach completion.

For the build, its engineers will resort to traditional boat construction techniques based on experience and intuition. Bin Suloom shrugs off the idea of using any architectural plans and sketches, saying: “I don’t need them. It’s all in my head. Instead, we will build a small prototype and take it out to the water, in order to test its buoyancy and fine-tune its balance, then we can move on to finalising the bigger version.”

Bin Suloom’s emotional connection to the craft of dhow building is quite clear, as he adds: “When finished, this will be a gift to HH Sheikh Mohamed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, so that our family name can live on and our country can be credited with one more achievement.”

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