Passengers and operators of the traditional wooden abras that cross Dubai Creek are apprehensive about plans to modernise the fleet. Many abra drivers and passengers say they are worried that an important part of Dubai's heritage will be lost when a new fleet of lighter aluminium boats is introduced next year. But the emirate's Marine Agency, which will manage the modernisation scheme, has promised the new vessels will have the same basic design and appearance as their aged predecessors.
Although they will be made primarily from composite fibre and aluminium, the new boats will be finished with a thin layer of wood to preserve the time-honoured look of a traditional abra. A key advantage of the new generation of boats is that they will be equipped with improved safety equipment, according to the agency. Electric motors will also reduce the pollution caused by the current petrol-driven abras.
Muhaamad Kamran, 29, a Pakistani, said he enjoyed the simplicity and old-fashioned feel of the current vessels. "I think it would be a bad idea to bring in new ones," he said during his crossing from Bur Dubai to Deira yesterday. "I don't really want to see that change. I don't think there's any need to improve them because they are safe and quite efficient as it is." Noor Hussain, a Bangladeshi who has been ferrying passengers for the past 20 years, said he was not keen on the idea of scrapping his ageing vessel. "What is wrong with these?" Mr Hussain said. "My abra is safe and already has life jackets and first aid kits. I've never had any accidents or injuries on board."
Kabil Ahmed, 32, an abra operator for 15 years, agreed. "People like these abras because they are a traditional part of life in this country, and nobody wants to see that change. Maybe the new boats will look a bit the same, but people will know the difference - I think it is a bad idea." Mr Ahmed conceded, however, the environmental benefits of the new abras. "That part is good," he said. Andreas Meyer and his wife Alexandra, both aged 38 and on holiday from Germany, felt strongly that traditional aspects of Emirati life such as abras should be protected, even at the cost of efficiency.
"I believe that old things representing a traditional way of life should always be maintained at any cost," Mr Meyer said as he boarded one of the wooden boats. "It is better for tourists that way, because they even come here to see these things - they don't really want to see a modern type of boat. "They talk about improving the safety, but from what I've seen and heard about abras, they're not exactly the most dangerous mode of transport in the world."
Not everyone was in favour of keeping the existing abra stock. Kai Struck, 43, also from Germany, said: "I'm fine with the idea of a modern fleet, it makes sense for water transport to move with the times." The Marine Agency, part of the Roads and Transport Authority, said it would introduce a few of the new-style abras in a pilot project next year. If they prove popular with operators and passengers, the existing fleet of 149 motorised abras - many more than 30 years old - will be gradually phased out and replaced.