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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 October 2018

How a UAE ship builder's passion went into creating the world's largest mega-dhow

Decades on from the heyday of the Creek's trading boats, a family-run yard still produces traditional hand-built vessels - and may be about to complete the biggest ever constructed

Majid Obaid makes it clear from the beginning that he is not building the largest dhow in the world for prestige, but for his father, Obaid Majid.

Mr Obaid does not particularly like attention and does not like to be photographed, although among the newspaper clippings lining the walls of his office halls is an enlarged, two-page report by Emarat Al Youm featuring a blurred photo of Mr Obaid being filmed.

He has been interviewed by CNN, Reuters, and others of global prominence, he says. “You don’t know how many times Bentley [Motors Limited] have been here."

Mr Obaid is fond of luxury brands, as is evident by the sparkling Cartier cufflinks he wears with his simple kandora, to match his Cartier watch. “Tomorrow will be Rolex,” he says, and compares these luxury brands to his family’s ship building company, the Obaid Juma bin Suloom Establishment, because of its renowned quality craftsmanship.

The dhow is roughly the length of a football pitch and could carry in its hold the equivalent of 750 elephants. Ramon Penas and Alvaro Sanmarti / The National 
The dhow is roughly the length of a football pitch and could carry in its hold the equivalent of 750 elephants. Ramon Penas and Alvaro Sanmarti / The National

Yet above all, Mr Obaid values the lessons taught by his late father, a humble dhow builder who founded the business that he, the eldest son of 17 children, has carried on with his brother Ahmed. “You have to understand, my father is why I have done everything,” he says.

Two dhows are currently under construction at the yard on the banks of the Dubai Creek in Al Jaddaf. One is a 4,500 tonne capacity dhow, which, in most dhow yards, would draw attention for its size. Yet on these sandy shores it is dwarfed by the dhow beside it, a 91-metre long, 11-metre tall ship, with a width of 20 metres.

Mr Obaid, the company’s chairman, hopes it will set a Guinness World Record. “Its carrying capacity is approximately 6,500 tonnes, which has, like, never, ever been done by anyone.”

His office is just a few meters from the dhow. Photos of his father hang from the walls of his wood-panelled office, and it is decorated with marine trinkets and model ships of all sizes. “You can see [my father], he is a very down to earth man,” he says. “He worked with his hands. He’s actually a craftsman and a sea man and he’s the one who changed the history of dhow building.”

Obaid Majid, who learned his trade in Pakistan and elsewhere as a young man, surveys the construction of a dhow at his boat yard, in this undated archival picture. Chris Whiteoak / The National
An archival image of Obaid Majid surveying the construction of a dhow at his boat yard. The National

Mr Obaid's father began an apprenticeship at the age of nine in the mid-1940s after he was withdrawn from school for fighting too much with the other children. “My grandfather decided to take him out because he had a lot of energy. He put him in some work where he could take his energy out.”

And later, when Mr Majid came of age, he went to sea. The 1950s were the final days for the sailing of dhows in the Gulf and he travelled to India and East Africa as a master carpenter on a trade dhow, overseeing repairs as it sailed the Indian Ocean.

In the 1960s, he assembled his own team of builders, attracting the best by paying the then-generous wage of 10 Saudi riyals a day.

He travelled to Pakistan in 1975, where he watched the construction of a 280-tonne capacity dhow, a ship that was 100 tonnes larger than the average dhow on Dubai Creek. Mr Majid got hooked on the idea of the mega-dhow and soon secured his first contract for a 300-tonne capacity dhow.

“Everybody was wondering, ‘Oh, Obaid, what you are doing?’

“All the dhow owners and all the captains, they used to be local and all of them said, ‘where will you bring cargo from?'

“And to all of this he said, ‘Allah kareem [God is generous], not a problem’.”

Mr Majid began building dhows of a 400 to 600-tonne capacity, incorporating elements of Pakistani dhow building to increase the cargo hold. He perfected his engineering by descending below deck in stormy weather to listen to the ship’s vibrations. As waves battered the hull, he would learn which areas needed reinforcement.

From left to right, Majid Obeid Bin Suloom Al Falasi, with son Obaid Majid Obaid Bin Majid Al Falasi and brother Ahmed Al Falasi. Chris Whiteoak / The National
From left to right, Majid Obeid Bin Suloom Al Falasi, with son Obaid Majid Obaid Bin Majid Al Falasi and brother Ahmed Al Falasi. Chris Whiteoak / The National

“He liked competition,” explains Mr Obaid. “He liked always to build the biggest, like Sheikh Mohammed [bin Rashid]. Here, Dubai people, they like a challenge.

“He used to cut the logs, work with the normal people and run the crane. He did everything. He was very strong and always smiling and liked to help everyone.”

When steel ships and fibreglass boats replaced wooden dhows, he kept building.

“There was demand until late eighties. After that, he did not stop working. He would put the keel, get started. If any buyer comes, OK, we’re good. If no buyer comes, Ok. We run it. So he did not stop working," says Mr Obaid.

As the city grew and property prices rose, Mr Majid's shipyard shifted from Al Ras, near his original family home, to Al Gharhood and Al Hamraniya Port, before settling at the current shipyard in Al Jaddaf in 1990.

”He made a brand for himself. Like Rolls-Royce. He always used to tell me that when you agree to make something for someone and you give them a price, don’t try to reduce any of the material or try to save money. You make a dhow as if you are making it for yourself. Consider yourself the customer.”

Mr Obaid grew up at his father’s shipyard and was later trusted to procure the wood. After he took over the business in 1995, he began production of wooden yachts.

Mr Majid passed away in 2009 and the family began to build a dhow in his honour in January 2015. A crew of about 20 men have worked on the dhow for the last two and a half years from 8am until sunset with a midday break.

“Put in mind that we almost lost six months of work,” says Mr Obaid. He had laid the keel and announced his intentions to Guinness, only to be informed that there was a bigger dhow already in Kuwait.

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Read more:

Life on-board a dhow: high stakes at the Al Dhafra Water Festival

Inside the dhows of Abu Dhabi’s Mina Zayed

Launch that may sail into history

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“But it’s attached to a hotel and that one is for conferences and not even in the water,” says Mr Obaid. “It’s used for weddings and dinners. It’s not even in the sea. I can make you one like that that is, like, 20 or 100 kilometres long.”

Guinness checked with their London office, who said a "dhow is a dhow”. So his crew redid the keel and now, in his opinion, the record will be unbeatable.

“Nobody can reach this number. Nobody is able to, nobody. Nobody in the world.”

As for the expense — "whatever it costs, it costs”.

Mr Obaid will put the award in the name of Dubai or the UAE, rather than his own name. He wants the ship named by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Dubai Ruler, when it launches later this year.

Once seaworthy, it will carry mixed cargo like cars, cattle and scrap metal around the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf of Aden.

And what then? A museum, says Mr Obaid. He points to the office around him. He has been collecting. It will be named after his father.