x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Old ways pressured by modernity

Across the Emirates, some of the traditional livelihoods underpinning the societies that grew into today's nation have been reduced to a shadow of what they were.

Dying art: Workers at Mohammed Bu Haji's boatyard in Ras al Khaimah. Many of the country's dhow workshops have closed or changed their focus to fibreglass boats in the past few years.
Dying art: Workers at Mohammed Bu Haji's boatyard in Ras al Khaimah. Many of the country's dhow workshops have closed or changed their focus to fibreglass boats in the past few years.

In a bustling warehouse full of fibreglass boats, Saeed hammers away on a lone wooden dhow frame near the back. "Business used to be good," he says of the traditional dhow-building industry. "We used to make three to four boats a month here in our shop. But look around now. It's quiet. This is the first order we have got this year."

Across the Emirates, traditional businesses such as Saeed's are struggling to survive as more lucrative trades push them out of the market. From pearl diving to small-scale fishing to camel breeding, the activities that were long the backbone of the country's economy are having to adapt or scale back in the face of high costs and the changing economic environment. In some cases, only Government subsidies are keeping them in business. Saeed, whose muscles bulge under his light blue shalwar kameez, says he has been building wooden dhows and boats in an Ajman workshop since he first arrived from his native Pakistan more than 20 years ago. But he says that in the past 10 years the business has steadily declined, to the point where he is lucky to get an order every few months.

Boat builders across the country say they are dealing with the decline in demand for wooden boats by shifting towards new materials that are lighter and cheaper. Hussain Johar, a co-owner of Al Boom Marine Machinery in Sharjah, says: "People started to realise some 15 years ago that they could save a lot of money and hassle by using [fibreglass] boats instead of wood boats." His father and founder of the company, Al Boom Hussain, says traditional dhows require more frequent maintenance.

"You will need to service a wood boat every two to three months, while the [fibreglass] boat you service only once a year," Mr Hussain says, adding that wood is costlier and heavier than fibreglass. "For ? those who are looking for cargo boats, weight is an important aspect," he says. Many of the country's dhow workshops have closed or changed their focus to fibreglass boats in the past few years, leaving only a small number of wood-boat builders, who are struggling to survive. Today, Mohammed Bu Haji will launch what could be the last traditional dhow built in Ras al Khaimah. That launch could mark the end of a centuries-old activity that brought the emirate its first wealth through trade and pearling. Mr Bu Haji, who has built dhows in RAK for about 50 years, has continued his work out of love of the craft, and using only traditional tools.

The dhow he is now building, 30 metres long, can carry 800 tonnes and is worth about Dh2.5 million (US$681,000). Competition from Iran in the cargo business is fierce, so he will rent it as a cargo ship to sailors in Yemen or Somalia to earn a profit, before selling it at cost in a few years. He usually invests this money in his next dhow. One of Mr Bu Haji's regrets is that his grandsons are not interested in the trade. It is hard work and simply not profitable.

Changes in technology and evolving economic conditions have affected other traditional industries in the Emirates. Camel herding, which once served an important role in the region by providing Bedouins with milk, meat, hides, wool, and transportation for goods and people across the dunes, has declined sharply as well. Few residents rely on these animals for transportation or food any more. Al Nassma Chocolate is a prime example of how some traditional industries are changing with the times to keep the historic businesses of the country alive.

In 2008, the company introduced the world's first chocolates made with camel milk. The chocolates have "received an overwhelmingly positive feedback, not only from the Gulf countries but also from the world's big chocolates markets of Europe, the US and Japan", says Martin van Almsick, the general manager. Al Nassma and its sister company, Camelicious - which is producing and selling camel milk in different flavours throughout the country - buy all their camel milk inside the country, providing a crucial market for local camel herders.

Some emirates have taken measures to support traditional businesses, including events such as camel races and festivals featuring awards as high as US$100,000 for winners. Al Dhafra Festival in Abu Dhabi recently attracted 1,200 camel owners from across the Arabian Peninsula with a total of 28,000 camels. A beauty contest at the festival, known locally as "Camel Mazayen", is organised annually by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH) at Zayed City in Al Gharbia.

The festival was started by the Abu Dhabi Government in collaboration with a group of camel owners in an attempt to keep this traditional industry alive. Governments across the Emirates are also involved in date festivals to assist farmers who cultivate date palms in much the same way as their forefathers across the Middle East and North Africa. The Liwa Date Festival in Al Ain is among the largest in the country, attracting 60,000 visitors last year, festival officials say.

As a result of these efforts, date production grew to 760,000 tonnes in 2007 from just 8,000 tonnes in 1971 - an increase of 9,400 per cent. Dates now represent 60 per cent of all agricultural products grown in the country. Abu Dhabi established the Al Foah company in 2005 with the goal of developing the date industry and making inroads into international markets dominated by Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq.

The company has provided subsidies, created a branding campaign, and conducted studies and research on date farming. It is also encouraging date farmers to move towards organic agriculture to gain market share. Fishing, which was long a key source of food and trade in the Emirates, is also undergoing a makeover. While demand remains high for fish such as the local hammour, shark and mackerel, the players in the industry have changed.

"I am not sure if we can continue to call fishing a traditional industry, since local Emiratis don't do it any more," says Daniel Khokhar, a Sharjah businessman. "Almost everywhere you go in Sharjah, Ajman, Ras al Khaimah, you will see it is the Indians, Pakistanis and other people doing the fishing, not the locals." Hassan Ahmed, a Sharjah fisherman from Iran, said the only thing keeping Emiratis in the business was a cash incentive.

Mr Ahmed has seen significant changes in the fishing industry in the past 10 years as technological innovations have increased efficiency. "Now it's all computers," he says. "When we throw the nets, we enter it in the computer and it will guide us to our nets when we are collecting fish." Whether its fishing off the shore of Sharjah or tending a herd of camels, traditional businesses are in transition.

Saeed, the dhow builder in Ajman, says the situation appears bleak. With orders reducing to a trickle, he may not be able to sustain his way of life. "I'm not sure what I'm going to do," he says, gazing at the painstakingly crafted dhow. * additional reporting by Anna Zacharias @Email:business@thenational.ae