x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Sharjah boat maker Al Marakeb's business is smooth sailing

The Life: Al Marakeb, a Sharjah-based boat maker, grew out of a college bet. But the company has wind in its sails.

Nour Al Sayyed is head of design and production at Al Marakeb, which goes back to her friend Basel Shuhaiber's university days. Jaime Puebla / The National
Nour Al Sayyed is head of design and production at Al Marakeb, which goes back to her friend Basel Shuhaiber's university days. Jaime Puebla / The National

It started as a college dare. When Basel Shuhaiber was studying architecture at the American University of Sharjah, his classmates bet him that he couldn't build the boat he said he could in his backyard.

A stubborn character, he set out to prove them wrong.

Nour Al Sayyed, also studying architecture, would visit after class to check on Mr Shuhaiber's progress.

The project took a year and by their own admission, the boat - "ugly and heavy" - was not the most beautiful craft ever to grace the seas. But Mr Shuhaiber proved his point and, in 2007, decided to go into business by founding Al Marakeb, a boat maker.

In 2008, when Ms Sayyed returned to the UAE after a year in Italy studying industrial design, Mr Shuhaiber asked her if she was interested in joining as head of design and production.

"I wanted to do something different," she says. "I didn't want to sit in an architectural firm and just draft for years until I could be a qualified architect. It was spontaneous, risky [but] I was fortunate enough to have the luxury of doing that [and] I was really interested in what [Basel] was doing because I had seen it all start up."

Ms Sayyed's master's degree equipped her with knowledge of resins and fibreglass, and how to make them into products. Still, she spent two years in the factory playing around with the material and figuring out how to make boats.

"There are a few things that you learn that you can't get from books," she says.

Alex Hayek, another friend, joined Al Marakeb as business development manager.

At first, the team made only customised boats. Six Senses Zighy Bay in Oman ordered a water taxi, and the company also worked on a dhow. But making one-off pieces wasn't a sustainable business model so they started noting trends - the most popular sizes and features customers ordered - and analysing what was already on the market. This led to the creation of their first standardised model: the Spartan, a 25-footer.

This was "not too daring to start off because 25ft is not that big," Ms Sayyed explains. "So we invested in the moulds."

They sold these mostly to their sister company, Al Marsa Travel and Tours (the parent company of Al Marsa and Al Marakeb is Intermass Engineering, owned by Mr Shuhaiber's father.) When they were sure the product was good they went on to larger boats - the Triton at 33ft, and the Dino at 31ft.

Starting a company that essentially sells luxury items in the midst of a recession may not have seemed like the smartest move but in fact it allowed the team ample time to focus on research and development.

"We started small and we didn't have much to lose. But now that things are picking up again we've had all that time to bring our products up to standard," Ms Sayyed says. "We are ready for the competition."

Business really started to take off last year and the company made about 40 boats, putting it under considerable pressure to meet order deadlines. However, the team streamlined its production line and is aiming to make as many as 60 craft this year. As well as the three managers, the company has about 25 employees - fibre technicians, electricians, carpenters - but the plan is to take more staff soon.

This year, the company has upgraded its original models. So, for example, the Triton 33 has become the Triton 35. In response to demand, Al Marakeb is also introducing two new models: the Habbar 25, for fishing, and the Scylla 35, the company's first cabin boat.

Most of the company's orders arrive online but this year sales agents will be welcomed on board in addition to those already operating in the Seychelles and Bahrain. Expansion into Europe is an ambition.

"2012 was a great year for Al Marakeb," Ms Sayyed says.

Perhaps the only slip-up so far has been the naming of the company. They intended to call it "Sea Base." But when the administration officer was asked at the licensing department what the name was he said: "Al Marakeb" which means, simply, "boats."

"It wasn't the most original of names," Ms Sayyed says, laughing. "But we thought, 'Fine, we won't go back and reregister. We'll work with it.'"