Despite its gentle sailing conditions, the aquamarine waters of the Gulf have unexpectedly fallen under a harsh international spotlight of late.
Earlier this year, the Alinghi sailing team selected Ras al Khaimah as the site for the 33rd America's Cup, the most prestigious sailing race in the world. The emirate's safety was then called into question due to its proximity to Iran by its challenger, the BMW Oracle Racing team. While the warnings were seen as blustery at the time, they may have been validated when the Iranian navy last Wednesday detained the Kingdom Of Bahrain, a yacht owned by Sail Bahrain, as it sailed to Dubai for a regatta.
Still, those events didn't mean the end of the UAE boating industry. While they may persuade future recreational and competitive sailors to stay well clear of any international marine boundary, closer to shore there is a nascent boom in the boating and marina industry and Abu Dhabi appears to be on the leading edge. The emirate hosted its first Formula One Grand Prix race at the Yas Marina Circuit last month, drawing in yachts, so-called super-yachts, those of more than 23 metres, and giga-yachts, those or more than 100 metres, from as far afield as Australia.
The US$200 million (Dh734.7m) Rising Sun owned by the BMW Oracle Racing backer Larry Ellison, the world's sixth-largest yacht at 138 metres, would have felt right at home at the F1 event, said Bruce Birtwistle, the marinas business manager at Septech Emirates, which built the Yas marinas. Several craft of more than 90 metres were moored there for the race. The berths are the first in the Gulf to be built dry and then flooded.
"Larry should have come to the F1," says Mr Birtwistle. "It is a case of 'seeing is believing'." The UAE is also increasingly a hot spot for the luxury yacht trade. It is home to more than 79,000 millionaires, 2007 estimates from the business consultancy Capgemini have shown, and the rich and affluent in the Emirates are increasingly turning to the sea for leisure. "In Abu Dhabi, there are a number of marinas due to be handed over or construction underway shortly," Mr Birtwistle says. He describes the conditions as ideal, with the limitless coves and inlets among the mangroves protected from the Shamal northwesterly winds and accompanying wave conditions through much of the year.
"That to me produces more interest in Abu Dhabi than would do in Dubai or Sharjah," Mr Birtwistle says. Members of the Abu Dhabi Royal Family will soon take delivery of new giga-yachts after the Abu Dhabi Mar shipyard finishes converting two Dutch-built frigates used by the UAE Navy measuring 135 and 141 metres respectively. Major yacht retailers are keen to have outlets including Sunseeker, the UK luxury yacht maker, at Yas Marina after the high-profile F1 event. Sunseeker is experiencing more demand in Abu Dhabi than in Dubai as it is getting between two and three inquiries a day from the capital, it said.
The growing pool of boat owners also requires more places to store them, a boon for companies such as Septech. There are an estimated 5,000 berths on the drawing board for Abu Dhabi for the next three to five years, industry estimates show. Many are tied to luxury waterfront properties, where developers are hoping to attract buyers with the lifestyle amenities that a berth provides. "There seems to be approach by developers where if you build it and they will come, and this is true in the marina field," Mr Birtwistle says. "In Dubai, there are not too many empty marinas."
One of the largest marinas is being planned by the Tourism Development and Investment Corporation (TDIC), which plans to build 1,000 berths on Saadiyat Island. Aldar Marinas has plans for 3,500 yacht berths in 14 marinas in Abu Dhabi. The developer is pressing ahead with the Al Gurm Resort, which willinclude 59 luxury homes, a 161five-star Banyan Tree resort and 72 yacht berths. Aldar is also behind Al Bandar, the first development that will be handed over at Al Raha Beach. Aldar plans 120 berths there.
Other Gulf states have also got in on the act. Porto Arabia, is the largest of The Pearl-Qatar's three marinas, will house 785 vessels ranging in size from 10 metres to 60 metres as well as a residential population of 15,000. There is also steadily growing interest in vertical yacht storage devices, where boats are hoisted out of the water and stored in multi-storey lots. But to date the UAE projects have called for conventional marinas.
The projects are drawing in new competition, and Mr Birtwistle said there are a number of firms that have established themselves locally. In Dubai, for example, IGY, which built the Festival City and Anchor marinas, recently announced a tie-up with G-Marin of Malta to be named Mourjan Marinas-IGY and be based in Dubai. There is plenty of competition for marina builders. "Some of the developers are very specific on who they want to bid and there might be three to four parties chosen," Mr Birtwistle says. "In other projects it is opened up to the general market and there will be as many as eight parties with different pontoon systems."
Some makers build berths using plastic or aluminium pontoon systems, while Septech specialises in concrete systems. Marinas generally include a safe place to moor a boat, plus power, water and sewage pump-out facilities in addition to various recreational facilities. Septech is bidding on new projects in the Emirates and Oman, which will build marinas to boost travel and tourism as well as provide facilities for local fishing fleets.
The financial crisis has had an adverse affect on marinas, however. Property developers faced with changing tastes and tighter budgets are reviewing or redrawing their waterfront developments and tenders are taking longer to be decided. About a year ago, for example, TDIC's Saadiyat Island marina was being redrawn for 2,000 berths before the slowdown encouraged the company to return to a plan for 1,000, Mr Birtwistle says.
"Most definitely the pace of development is affected," he says. "I would say overall we are looking at a two year slowdown from where we were." In Dubai, where many grandiose waterfront developments have been delayed, yacht sales fell by three quartersas of September from 18 months before, said Michael Derrett, who runs a consultancy specialising in the marine leisure industry. Despite the recent uncertainty, Mr Birtwistle takes solace in the plans that he sees in the UAE capital.
"There seems to be a strong market and strong demand for vessels in region generally and Abu Dhabi specifically," he says. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org