x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Security fears shut dhow harbour

One of Dubai's most popular tourist attractions is to be closed to long-haul dhows because of growing security concerns.

DUBAI // The historic dhow harbour, one of Dubai's most popular tourist attractions, is to be closed to long-haul dhows because of growing concerns about the difficulty of maintaining security in the heart of the city. For the past 100 years, the dhow wharves on the east bank of Dubai Creek have played a key part in the expansion of the city and the development of trade with East Africa and the Indian subcontinent.

Tourists flock to the Creek for the colourful and often chaotic spectacle of hundreds of workers loading and unloading goods from the traditional wooden dhows that ply their trade on age-old routes to destinations throughout the Gulf, the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. Now, however, the pressures of the modern world are rendering the traditional site unworkable. Dubai Customs is to relocate all dhow shipping to the expanding Al Hamriya Port in Deira, seven kilometres away by water on the coast at the base of the Palm Deira development.

"We don't want dhows from around the world, often away from the country for weeks, coming right up to the heart of the city as they could be illegals and smugglers," said Hassan Maidoor, the head of Dubai Airport Free Zone Inspection Centre. Much of the trade centred on the dhow wharfage is with Iran; hundreds of vessels travel between the two countries every day, and one of the key concerns for the Dubai authorities is complying with UN sanctions designed to deny Iran access to "dual-use" technology which could have military and nuclear applications as well as civilian uses.

UAE officials have intercepted a number of banned cargoes bound for Iran, including last year a consignment of the metal zirconium, a component of nuclear reactors. In September, Saeed al Marri, the deputy director of the Federal Customs Agency, told The National that the UAE's attempts to comply with the UN sanctions were being hampered by a lack of clarity about what could and could not be shipped, a problem compounded by the challenge of monitoring the hundreds of dhows that travel daily to and from Iran from Dubai Creek. The move is part of a wider strategy by customs aimed at improving the security of the city, which includes increasing the inspection of trading vessels and monitoring sailors who enter the country, particularly from Iran, Pakistan and India. The attack on Mumbai in November, in which the assailants were landed by boat, emphasised the vulnerability of cities with busy waterfronts at their heart. Customs officers have the daunting task of inspecting every electronic or industrial item bound for Iran; concentrating the dhow shipping at the newly developed Al Hamriya Port, with its modern, high-technology facilities, will make the task much easier, Mr Maidoor said during a routine inspection. On the Creek, with its limited facilities, the inspection of individual dhows can take anything from a few hours to up to a week. "Some of these boats are away from the country for up to two weeks and could be used to smuggle in illegal goods from Iran," Mr Maidoor said. "Some of them are challenging to inspect." In addition to contraband such as uncertified or counterfeit medicines, "we are looking for anything that could be used in a nuclear plant or as weapons of mass destruction", he said. "We have brought in a specialised inspection team and have a laboratory as backup on suspected items." Now, on the orders of the Government, all Creek inspection operations would be moved to the new coastal facility. "We want to move away dhows that travel right up to the heart of the city to Al Hamriya Port as they could pose a security risk," Mr Maidoor said. "At Al Hamriya sailors can be monitored." It is unclear whether the relocation will have an impact on the volume of traffic coming into Dubai from the Sharjah direction. Reaction to the move among the independent traders and owners who are the chief users of the dhow wharfs was mixed. "It would initially have an effect on business and be more difficult to bring goods in and out of the city, but eventually people would get used to it," said Nasser Hashepour, the vice-president of the Iranian Business Council. One captain said as he was leaving his dhow after a 70-hour voyage from Chabahar, Iran, that he feared the proposal would harm his business. "We are right in the middle of the city," said Ali Hussain, who carries bottled soft drinks to Iran, returning with cargoes of rice and flour. "We can get goods in and out quickly. Moving to Al Hamriya would mean it would take longer to empty and fill the dhow." Only wooden ships, some with a capacity of up to 800 tonnes, are allowed to enter the Creek. Each of the eight wharfs are capable of handling 31 boats at a time, and 720,000 tonnes of cargo pass through the facility every year. Al Hamriya, originally a fishing port, is, along with Jumeirah One, Umm Sequim One and Umm Sequim Two, one of four historic harbours along the Dubai coast undergoing major redevelopment work costing Dh300 million (US$82m). No date has been given for the move from the Creek, but work on Al Hamriya, including extension of the quay by more than two kilometres, improved facilities for fishing vessels and construction of a marina for yachts, is due to be completed within two years. shafez@thenational.ae