AJMAN // The traditional industries that once formed the foundation of the country's economy are fighting for survival as they struggle against increasing competition from cheaper and more efficient rivals. "The traditional industries would probably not survive, or at least would only survive on a smaller scale without - subsidies," said Christopher Davidson, a lecturer at Britain's Durham University and an author of two books about the UAE.
Before petrochemicals transformed the Emirates into a booming economy, locals depended on pearl diving, fishing, dhow building and camel herding to make a living. But today, such businesses are scaling back or are dependent upon ever increasing subsidies from the Government to keep them afloat. The Emirates's traditional wooden boat building industry has declined significantly in the past 10 years as cheaper and lighter fibreglass craft have come to dominate the market.
"Take an example of a 65-foot [fibreglass] cargo boat," said Hussain Johar, a co-owner of Al Boom Marine Machinery in Sharjah. "You can get it for up to Dh400,000 (US$108,000). But if you want a wooden one, it can cost you Dh3 million. Which one will you choose?" Traditional dhow builders are becoming a rarity across the country, except for a few craftsman, predominantly in the Northern Emirates, who take on a handful of new orders per year, Mr Johar said.
The fishing industry is also in decline, as fish populations drop in the Gulf. Fishermen brought in 90,000 tonnes of fish last year, compared with 118,000 tonnes in 1999, according to a survey by the GCC Fisheries Committee. The number of commercial fishing trips in Abu Dhabi declined to 5,900 last year, compared with 7,300 in 2004, according to Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi (EAD). The fishing industry has seen local Emiratis leave the business and other nationalities arrive, mainly from South East Asia.
"The locals are still here as boat owners and boat companions," said Abdul Razak, a Sharjah fisherman from Kerala, India. Pearl diving, the risky practice that brought the first taste of wealth to the Emirates, is all but extinct except for sporting events. However, the Dubai Multi Commodities Centre has brought the industry back to the region as a major trader of pearls. Some industries have found profit in creating new ways to market and sell traditional products.
In 2008, Martin van Almsick created the first ever brand of chocolates made from camel milk. Al Nassma Chocolate Company now sells the confectionery around the world. Mr van Almsick, the general manager of Al Nassma, said the company produced 100 tonnes of the camel milk chocolates a year with an estimated "yearly increase of roughly 20 per cent or more, depending on the number of camels that share their milk with us".
Date farming is also undergoing a transformation from traditional methods of growing the trees to more efficient organic farming. Al Foah, the Abu Dhabi Government company in charge of improving date farming in the emirate, gives subsidies to farmers in order to increase productivity. One of its developments, the pilot Al Foah Farm project, is the largest date farm in the world, with 1,321 hectares of palms.
The subsidies the Al Foah farms receive vary. Special preference is given to farms most in need of financial assistance, which usually means smaller farms receive larger subsidies. The total amount of subsidies has not been disclosed. Mr Davidson said the Government's initiatives had preserved at least some of the country's historical businesses. "Traditional industries in the UAE are in a relatively better position than in most other parts of the developing world, mostly due to strong government backing, a strong interest generated by tourism and a local culture that values history and tradition."